HC Deb 29 October 1998 vol 318 cc474-529

[Relevant documents: The fifth report from the Agriculture Committee of Session 1993–94, on Health Controls on the Importation of Live Animals (HC 347–1, published on 23 November 1994).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Betts.]

4.12 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

This is the first parliamentary occasion on which I have had the opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) to his new role as principal Opposition spokesman on agricultural matters and I do so now. I know that he will be a robust opponent on party political issues, but on issues of national importance that transcend party politics, such as the date-based export scheme, I hope that I can count on him as an ally.

Today's debate is not party political, although it involves matters on which people hold very strong views. Since becoming Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, much of my time has been consumed by the specific difficulties faced by farmers and the Government's desire to do what we can to respond; Agenda 2000 and the wider search for common agricultural policy reform; and, of course, the beef export ban, on which I have set myself the target of getting the issue resolved before Christmas. I am absolutely determined that the intense focus on those priorities will not divert me or the Department from our other responsibilities, especially food standards and the protection of the public.

Our quarantine laws, and the case for their modernisation and reform, are one aspect of public protection. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for her having secured Government time for the debate. The views of individual hon. Members are especially important on an issue such as this one, in which there is no obvious party political divide. The British people are internationally famous—or notorious—as animal lovers. We keep pets as part of our families, and we object to forced separation. It is no surprise that the requirement of six months in quarantine for dogs and cats entering the United Kingdom has always been unpopular among pet owners, especially those whose work commitments require them to travel abroad. That has a particular application for the armed services.

There are good reasons for quarantine, however. Rabies is an appallingly unpleasant disease which still causes many deaths in some parts of the world. It is right to take strict precautions against it. I am not willing to recommend to the House anything that puts our population at risk from rabies. Nor am I willing to put to the House anything that would inflict rabies on our wildlife or our pets. There has been no native case of rabies among animals for more than 75 years, and it is 95 years since someone last died of the disease after contracting it here.

We maintained that record during a period in which an epidemic in wildlife made rabies common on continental Europe. It is no longer common, however. A successful campaign is pushing the disease back beyond the frontiers of the present European Union. Western Europe is now largely free of rabies. There were only 100 cases last year in animals other than bats, compared with 14,000 cases in 1989.

We must also take into account the freedom to travel that people now enjoy. Holidays abroad are part of modern life. In particular, the channel tunnel has made travel easy. Against that background, we must ask whether our arrangements are still justified. In 1971, the Waterhouse committee recommended retention of six months quarantine as a standard requirement. In 1994, the Select Committee on Agriculture had a fresh look at the subject, and it reported that vaccines were available for the prevention of rabies, that blood tests could show whether the vaccine had taken and that microchips could identify whether an animal was the one mentioned in a vaccination or blood test certificate. The Select Committee concluded that scientific advances since the Waterhouse Report now make it not only feasible, but desirable, for the UK to permit anti-rabies controls based upon vaccination and blood-testing as an alternative to quarantine for pet dogs and cats arriving from other EU countries and all other countries internationally recognised to be rabies-free and carrying out appropriate policies to maintain their rabies-free status". That report is before us today to help inform our debate.

The then Government welcomed that report, but concluded that the changes proposed were premature. The Conservative Government argued that the eradication programme in the European Union had not been completed. They said that new arrangements for importing traded cats and dogs to the UK were still untested. They said that similar relaxations recently introduced in Norway and Sweden were also untried.

Whatever the case may have been at that time, those objections surely have little force today. Highly respected bodies—including the British Medical Association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the British Veterinary Association—have argued that the time has come for a re-evaluation.

When we came into office, the Government were aware of strong opposition to quarantine among many pet owners, but aware also of deep fears among those who support the existing system. To help to reconcile those views, my predecessor called for a scientific assessment of the risks that we run under the policy of quarantine and under five other options. It is, perhaps, remarkable that that had not been done previously, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, now the Minister for the Cabinet Office, for his decision. Professor Kennedy chairs the advisory group on quarantine that conducted the review. On 23 September, I published his report "Quarantine and Rabies: A Reappraisal". The report is an excellent and thorough analysis which gives a sound basis for conducting the public debate. I commend it to the House, and am most grateful to Professor Kennedy and all the members of his group.

The essence of the report lies in the first two of its 41 recommendations. It recommends an alternative system for bringing pets into this country from the European Union, European Economic Area and rabies-free islands. For such animals, the alternative system gives safeguards equivalent to quarantine, which would be abandoned for those areas. That would apply both to pets taken from Great Britain to those countries and then returning, and to pets coming into Great Britain from those countries if they satisfy the same conditions.

The key to the new system will be certification showing, first, that the animal is identified by a microchip; secondly, that it was vaccinated against rabies at or over three months of age using an approved vaccine; thirdly, that it has had a blood test to confirm the effectiveness of vaccination carried out at least six months before entry into Britain; and, finally, that it has had treatment against ticks and a parasite no more than 24 hours before entry. The reasoning behind the requirements is well set out in the report. Of course, we shall have to review them in the light of comments on the report, but the basic structure of identification, vaccination, and certification is fundamental to any new system.

In considering the options, the group recognised that even the present system is not risk free, because smuggling clearly occurs. It found that its recommended alternative did not involve any significant increase of risk. It could make no assessment of the impact of smuggling in the modern environment. This is a personal view and not something on which the group felt able to advise me, but I think that some of the incentive to smuggle lies in the six-month period of separation. People do not want to be separated from their pets, and some of them, foolishly and wrongly, decide to try to circumvent the law by smuggling. It logically follows that, if we can find a legal alternative that does not require separation, at least part of the incentive to smuggle will be removed. We are, therefore, providing a further public safeguard, rather than undermining the protection of the public.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

If anyone needs evidence of what is going on with smuggling and its vast scale, particularly in respect of cats and dogs, they need only ask around confidentially in the expatriate English-speaking communities in any capital in Europe. One of the reasons is that to which my right hon. Friend alluded, but there is another: it can cost between 1,000 and £1,500 to put a cat away for 15 months. Most people cannot afford that, which is why they have to smuggle, sad as it is. I look forward to a change in the law because it is desperately needed.

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is on the right track. It is difficult to estimate accurately how many pets are smuggled because of the nature of the activity. To judge from anecdotal evidence of the sort that he mentioned, it is a problem and, at least in part, the desire to avoid separation between pet and owner is the motivation. If we can put in place a system that avoids that motivation, we may diminish the amount of smuggling, and, because ours is a tested route, diminish risk to the public.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. While I agree broadly with the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), does the Minister accept that the Government need to maintain a system of emergency regulations in the event that an outbreak of rabies occurs in a given geographical area? Will he ensure that, if he goes through with the reforms posited in the Kennedy report, any collection of emergency regulations will not damage activities, such as farming, more than the evil from which protection is sought?

For example, the Government might intend to ban at short notice all animal movements within a given area. That could have a direct effect on horse race meetings and other equine events, such as Badminton and Burghley by Stamford. While taking every care to prevent the spread of rabies, the Government should not simultaneously damage the economic value of activities involving horses.

Mr. Brown

I take the hon. and learned Gentleman's point and thank him for welcoming me to my new position.

The emergency regulations are designed to deal with a rabies outbreak after it has been identified. They do not take into account the source of that outbreak—although the appropriate authorities will prosecute those who caused it. We do not intend to change the emergency procedures for dealing with an outbreak or to alter the criminal sanctions that are already in place regarding smuggling. Those people who attempt to smuggle animals into the country in defiance of the rabies regulations are being very selfish and foolish, and I deplore their actions.

The Kennedy group considered other options, but they were found to carry a greater risk and, therefore, were not recommended by the group. The Kennedy group rejected the option of simply reducing the quarantine period to one month. It did not find a system of identification, vaccination and certification to be a good enough safeguard for pets coming from every country in the world. Indeed, the report advocated European Union action to put adequate controls in place against animals coming from third countries, including the candidate member states. However, it recommended a further study of the number of animals that might come from North America, and a risk assessment in light of that. That seems to me to be a reasonable recommendation.

The group envisaged controls coming into force at the port of entry, and was very clear about the need for proper enforcement. Any scheme that is introduced to parallel existing quarantine rules will rely on enforcement, and I am determined to ensure that enforcement features strongly in any such scheme.

Upon entry, the pet and its certificate would be presented to an official whose sole responsibility would be to check imported animals. Although nothing has been firmly decided in this area, the House will want to know that it is pretty certain—as certain as we can be at this stage—that, if such a scheme were to come into effect, those officials would come from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The official would read the pet's microchip number and check it against the certificate. Provided that they matched and the certificate was satisfactory, the animal would enter the country without further ado.

In order to avoid any doubt, I stress that the Kennedy group did not propose—and the Government would not accept—anything that would imply a green channel whereby animals would be waved through. That is not the proposal on which we are consulting. Animals that failed to meet this simple requirement, for whatever reason, would be quarantined for six months or until such earlier time as their certification was shown to be in good order.

It is important to stress that quarantine would remain the rule not only for pets coming from most countries outside Europe, but for animals that failed to meet the new requirements in full. If animals failed to meet the requirements, they would go straight into quarantine.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. This may be an appropriate moment to congratulate him on his new position. I was in the House when he made his maiden speech from the Opposition Benches, which roughly coincided with my own debut at the Dispatch Box.

I was interested to hear the Minister say that it would be his Department's staff who monitored compliance with the new regulations or criteria. It is clear that that will be an expensive matter. As he knows, the considerable delay envisaged in the report has been the subject of objections and is a matter of great concern. During his opening speech, will he tell us that he has already started the costing of the arrangements; that he is making allocations in the next public expenditure survey round for his Department's proposed expenditure; that there is a realistic progression of stages leading to the implementation of the new proceedings; and whether those can be accelerated?

Mr. Brown

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my new duties and thank him even more for having sat through my maiden speech, which was delivered in 1983 at around midnight, if I remember correctly.

Mr. Clark

It was memorable.

Mr. Brown

It did not strike me as being memorable, although I did have one good joke. I have been telling it ever since and it has carried me a long way.

The arrangements will have to be paid for, of course, and I shall talk about costs later in my speech and deal with the main thrust of the right hon. Gentleman's question then. When I referred to the official being a MAFF official, it was not to invite the House to go through the Department's whole budget to see whether existing resources would cover the money to pay that official, but to make the point that the official would be dedicated to that specific duty and that it would not be added to the responsibilities of other officials who have duties at points of entry. The Government will take enforcement extremely seriously.

One of the Kennedy report's most important recommendations is for a large-scale education and publicity programme. Everyone who might use the system, as well as those operating it, will need to know the rules well in advance. Otherwise, people will try to bring in pets that do not qualify and there will be chaos and ill feeling at the point of entry, as pets are refused entry and sent straight into quarantine. The group recognised that the new system could not be brought in overnight and recommended that up to three years be taken to get it up and running. Sites at port should be ready, staff recruited and trained and the public properly informed. I shall return to the issue of timing later.

The group emphasised that its proposals must be viewed against our obligations within the European Union. I am also mindful of our special obligation to Ireland, with which we have a common land border. I am grateful to the group for covering several detailed aspects that are often left by the wayside when quarantine is discussed.

As to the Government's response to the report, without pre-empting the public consultation, I am sympathetic to the case for change. In the light of the Kennedy report, we cannot maintain the status quo, nor can we any longer argue that quarantine is the only way in which to protect our country against rabies. I do not see how we can keep our current system unchanged when there is a less onerous alternative that gives rise to no greater risk and, indeed, has some advantages over the current system.

The report confirms that we have the scientific knowledge and techniques to take the necessary precautions against rabies. Many have said that before. That is not the key issue, even though some important technical details remain to be settled. The report treads new ground in its emphasis on implementation and the effects of change. It puts that into context through its risk assessment, which helps us to devise a new system and warns of the points to watch. Compliance with the rules is essential to the success of any scheme, but particularly this one.

First, we have to be ready for a vast increase in the number of pets taken to and fro. The report assumes that the number of animals might reach 250,000, rather than the 8,000 that currently go into quarantine. That would be in line with the Swedish experience. Gearing up to deal with that number of animals is a task we cannot afford to underestimate. Secondly, vaccination and blood testing are not infallible. Checking remains important and we shall have to consider how that is best carried out. I am determined that we should remain a rabies-free country with strong safeguards against the disease.

Thirdly, we must be ready for people who are willing to break the law. The report recommends that we should check the certificates of every animal coming into the country and makes further recommendations designed to make enforcement easier and more effective. The problem lies not with pets going to, and coming from, rabies-free countries, but with the difficulty of distinguishing those animals from others that carry a risk. Following up the report will therefore not be a straightforward task.

When we published the report on 23 September, I announced that we were inviting comments by 31 December. We are anxious to have reactions to the proposals. We have already received more than 300 responses from more than 20 countries and expect many more. I welcome today's debate as part of that process.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Brown

The House would probably like to know how the consultation is going. Eighty-seven per cent. of the responses are broadly in favour of change as proposed by the Kennedy report, but not going beyond that; 10 per cent. are opposed to change, mainly on the grounds that they do not have pets and do not want to be placed at any risk by other people's pets, and 3 per cent. made neutral points. I give way to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Mr. Forth

Will the Minister give us his view on paragraph 11.9.1 of the report, which says: We understand that the Minister may wish the animal owner to meet the cost of any enforcement under any new system", and goes on to offer observations? It would be useful if he told the House whether he believes that it would be proper and reasonable for the users of the system to pay the full cost and that the cost should not fall on the taxpayer.

Mr. Brown

That is a fair point, which parallels that made by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark). I am about to deal with that matter in terms that will brook no misunderstanding. I assure the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that I shall not equivocate on that issue—because the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not let me.

Mr. Forth

Good man.

Mr. Brown

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for confirming that the Chancellor is a good man. I strongly agree with that.

While consultation continues, we are doing some preparation and taking a hard look at all that would have to be done to put a new scheme in place. We must concentrate on three aspects at this stage. First, there are legal issues to be resolved. We must be sure that what we do is compatible with European Community law. I am keeping the Commission informed of progress in my Department. We also need to consider how we shall link together the three systems that might in future apply: quarantine, the so-called Balai system for traded cats and dogs and the new arrangements for pets based on vaccination and certification. Linked with that is the need to specify certification that we will have to ask other countries to provide.

Secondly, the pet owners who benefit from the new system will have to pay for it. I hope that that is sufficient answer to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea.

Mr. Alan Clark

That is an interesting and perfectly legitimate response. If that is the case, surely the pet owners—the paymasters—can determine to a far greater extent than if cost were a matter for the right hon. Gentleman's Department when the measures will come into force, and plainly they will want that to happen at the earliest opportunity. Since pet owners can no longer be put off by the explanation that the scheme will take a long time to put in place and the provisions must be passed through the public expenditure survey and the Chancellor, surely there are good grounds for accelerating the implementation of the measures.

Mr. Brown

I am keen to do what I can to meet the legitimate aspirations of pet owners, but my primary concern is to protect the country from rabies. The interests of my fellow citizens and public health and safety come first, and within that I shall consider what can be done to meet the legitimate requests of those who own pets and want to take them abroad. Professor Kennedy's report will inform and advise decision making in the Department.

However, the fact that pet owners will have to pay for the new arrangements does not mean that they can set out their terms and conditions. Under the existing system, it is a requirement not only that pet owners are separated from their pets for six months if they have brought them in from abroad, because of the quarantine requirement, but that they pay for quarantine. The state does not pick up the cost of those arrangements, which can be quite high—£ 1,600.

Currently, anyone who wishes to bring a pet into the country is required to pay. It does not seem unfair and unreasonable, therefore, for the arrangements to continue if the test and the public protection arrangements—and that is what they are—are to operate differently from the quarantine procedures when we deal with the European Union.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Can the Minister confirm the valid point that he is making—that at the moment, there is a cost to the Exchequer of inspections of quarantine kennels and the like, so the present system is costing us in any case?

Mr. Brown

What the hon. Gentleman says is completely right. There is a cost to the Exchequer of kennel inspections, and that cost will continue to be incurred—although its extent might be different under the new arrangements—because Kennedy does not propose, and the Government are not considering, the abolition of quarantine.

Quarantine will remain for animals coming to the UK from countries outside the scheme. It will also be needed for animals brought in by people who believe that their pets comply with the regime, but find that the pets do not. Those pets will go into quarantine, and the obligation will be on the owner to be able to show that the pet can be brought into compliance—perhaps by providing the certificate that they left outside the country—but the effect will be the same. They will have to be able to comply with the new arrangement or the old arrangement will carry on, and I am afraid that they will be charged for it.

The third aspect that the Government will need to consider closely is the question of the time that will be needed to put the new arrangements into place. The Kennedy estimate—three years—seems a long time. I am examining the case for an earlier pilot project—perhaps funded at a premium—to establish new arrangements, or perhaps one covering a limited number of animals. These are early days. I am considering the possibility of speeding up progress—at least for part of the scheme. However, I ask the House not to underestimate what needs to be done. I emphasise that the project is being driven forward by considerations of the safety of the public in the United Kingdom—not by the views of others who will benefit from the project.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does the Minister agree that, if it is known that quarantine will shortly be abolished for some categories of country, the temptation to smuggle will be much increased in people who—perhaps having served in the Army abroad—have been waiting a long time to return a pet? They will think, "This system will die anyway in a few months, so why should I go through all that?" If it is possible to accelerate the process for an especially urgent case of that kind, it might help increase security.

Mr. Brown

I do not think that it is fair to describe the desire of individuals to move now and bring their pets with them as urgent in the sense of public policy. I hope that nothing that I say in the House today will give any comfort to anyone who has smuggled animals or is even thinking about it. If they are caught they will be punished, and punishment can involve custodial sentencing. A more likely outcome of today's debate, and the broader understanding that the Government are minded to agree to change and reform, is that those who can adjust their travel arrangements will wait a little to see whether a scheme comes on stream that is more acceptable to them than the existing quarantine arrangements.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the quarantine arrangements are very harsh if they are not strictly necessary for the protection of the public. Professor Kennedy and his group have made a very persuasive case that, at least in the context of the European Union and other rabies-free islands, the case for continuing the existing arrangements is pretty weak. Substitute arrangements will be put in place.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Many rabies-free countries are not islands. Has the Minister considered, in the consultations, including some more of those countries in the scheme?

Mr. Brown

The Government proposal will have to be very area specific when it is set before the House, and I shall consider those questions of nuance when the consultation is finished. However, if I err, it will have to be on the side of the safety of people in the United Kingdom, not on that of people's desire to move their pets around.

I have made a specific comment about arrangements in north America, which is the pretty obvious great exception to what is proposed. Very reasonably, Kennedy asked for a further look to be taken at that, and I find that request very persuasive. Rabies is endemic in wildlife in north America, but those who travel from north America—perhaps to work in this country, for business reasons or to take an extended holiday—are very unlikely to keep a rabid animal in their household as a pet, and veterinary standards in the United States are very high indeed. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we shall be able to devise a parallel system for north America, but that is for the future.

I shall now discuss arrangements for establishing the new system. We must gear up ports to receive arrivals in a way that is compatible with the rules that we intend to impose. We shall need to install facilities and procedures, which will, I am afraid, slow down pet owners. Currently, ports usually move people through as fast as is compatible with the duties of Customs and Excise and immigration controls. Pet owners will have to do something different from other travellers: there will be a separate official for them to see.

We must tell other countries about the certificates that they may need to provide for those of their nationals who want to bring pets here. We must consider the diseases, other than rabies, that dogs and cats may carry. Moreover, we want the arrangements to be agreed for the whole of the British Isles, not for Great Britain alone. None of the details to be worked out seem to carry with them insuperable obstacles.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Eurotunnel and Eurostar got in touch with me today to say that the concept of Eurotunnel was designed specifically with such changes in mind, and that they could implement the regulations very quickly indeed. Eurostar would be delighted to offer its services for a pilot study.

Mr. Brown

That is excellent news, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful suggestion. I shall arrange to get in touch with Eurotunnel and Eurostar through the Department to discover whether we might devise such a scheme. It seems logical that, if one were to set up a pilot project, the terminal at Waterloo and embarkation at Paris would be suitable—but I seem to remember that Eurotunnel also stops at Ashford and Lille, so the latter might be better. As I have shown, the details are best not worked out over the Dispatch Box. There is at least a possibility of a pilot project, which will be explored.

In the meantime, we have no choice but to continue to apply the existing laws; I hope that no one is under any illusions about that. We shall move as fast as we can, depending on the outcome of consultation, but quarantine will stay until we have something as effective to put in its place. Madam Speaker—I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker is in the Chair. How easy it is to lose friends in this place! Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for arranging the debate. I know that other hon. Members want to take part. I take the views of Members of Parliament from both sides of the House on such a topic very seriously indeed.

4.49 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I thank the Minister warmly for the welcome that he extended to me at the start of the debate. I assure him that the Opposition are ready to support any measures that address the acute problems which have arisen in the industries for which his Department is responsible.

I take this opportunity of offering the Minister an apology for mistakenly suggesting earlier this month that he was once a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a mistake that he hastily pointed out to me. In making that suggestion, I had his own best career interests in mind, because I was seeking, with some difficulty, to find aspects of his early career that he shared with the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, I regret the error.

This is the Minister's first chance to speak in the House since the summer recess started three months ago. It is a matter of some regret that in this, his first debate since the recess in Government time, the subject is quarantine. It is an important subject of course, but I cannot believe that, in House of Commons terms, it is particularly urgent, since the consultation period does not end until 31 December. That will be noted by farmers up and down the country. They will be puzzled—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Oh."] The reaction of those on the Treasury Bench who are trying to deride this important point is extremely instructive. Farmers throughout Britain will note and be puzzled about why the Government and the Leader of the House, and possibly the Minister, think it more important for Parliament to discuss quarantine this afternoon than to address the crisis in agriculture, which became so much worse during the parliamentary recess.

Mr. Nick Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about me and for putting the record right. I am not and never have been a member of CND. On the question of the difficulties that the agriculture sector is experiencing at present, I and my Department have been working hard on those very issues and, at an appropriate time, I shall come to the House and have something of significance to say. Farmers are looking not for a debate, but for answers. When I can, I shall come to the House and say what I am able to do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Now that the point has been made about the farmers and it has been responded to, we can go on to quarantine.

Mr. Yeo

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. In reverting to quarantine, I would just say that the Opposition are not at all reluctant to debate agriculture, as we hope to do next week. We look forward to the Minister's statement in due course.

The Opposition fully recognise the powerful case for reforming the present laws. Matters have moved on since the previous Government considered the issue. I endorse the Minister's appreciation of Professor Kennedy's report. We fully accept that the onerous restrictions imposed by the current quarantine requirements cause real anguish for many pet owners—for families who have to live abroad for professional reasons and particularly for those in the armed forces who serve this country. For all those people, the system is an extra burden on top of those that they already carry.

We are mindful of the example of Sweden where there is now a certain amount of experience and where the determination to exclude rabies matches our own. We also have the 1994 report of the Select Committee on Agriculture, which reached the clear conclusion that an alternative to the existing arrangements was desirable. I also accept the force of the argument that a change in the regulations will reduce the incentive for owners misguidedly to try to smuggle pets into Britain.

The Opposition will support the removal of the present tight controls subject to two essential conditions. First, the ending of the present restrictions on the movement of animals should not increase the risk that rabies will enter Britain. I warmly welcome the tone in which the Minister has assured us that that is also his concern. Secondly, the practical arrangements needed to make the proposed new system work should be feasible, realistic and watertight and not be a burden on the taxpayer. That point has already been raised by Conservative Members, and the Minister has said that the pet owner will bear the cost of the new system. I am glad that, on this matter, there has been no equivocation from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I hope that the Minister's right hon. Friend is equivocating like anything over some other matters which he is no doubt debating with him at the moment.

The question of risk is clearly the overriding consideration, and I have read the relevant chapter in the report. As the Minister said, no responsible Government would wish to be the instrument by which the country lost the freedom from rabies that it has enjoyed for almost the whole of this century. I do know how concerned the Government are with risks, even with quite small risks, as we have learnt from their imposition of a ban on beef on the bone. That ban was imposed despite the risk of dying from eating beef on the bone being less than the risk of being struck by lightning. The Minister will be familiar with the Opposition's view, which is held as strongly today as when last expressed, that that ban should be lifted.

I assume from what the Minister has said and from my reading of the report that it is the Government's view that, since the risk of eating beef on the bone in the past year was unacceptable, the risks that might arise from ending the current quarantine arrangements—I appreciate that we are not abolishing quarantine altogether, but we would be proposing a substantial relaxation of the arrangements in respect of some countries—are even lower.

Mr. Nick Brown

Strictly speaking, comparing like with like, I cannot truthfully tell the House today that the Government have measured the risks identified in Professor Kennedy's report against the risks of consuming beef on the bone. A direct comparison is not quite so easy as the hon. Gentleman suggests. If he studies Professor Kennedy's report carefully, he will see that the risk assessments cover a pretty wide range.

Mr. Yeo

I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. It is a point to which we might wish to return later. I am sure that the Minister agrees that the emphasis must be on making only those changes that do not impose any measurable risk. One important difference between the two examples in my comparison is that a risk that results from eating something is more or less run knowingly, while a risk from rabies might be outside one's control.

A number of detailed aspects arise with regard to the effectiveness of the practical arrangements proposed. The first concerns the position, which might arise, of a British pet returning to Britain from another EU country. From what I have read and heard so far, I am not clear how the checking station at the port of entry, say, Dover, will know whether, during the time that the animal has spent abroad, it has been outside the EU to a third country that might not be rabies free. It is at least possible that checks on animals re-entering the EU—outside Britain—might be rather less rigorous than those envisaged for the UK. So a UK resident who had a second home in another EU country, as a growing number do, and who might spend a substantial part of the year there, say six months—

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)


Mr. Yeo

I believe that that is favoured by a number of the Minister's colleagues. If the cat had not mysteriously disappeared from No. 10 Downing street—who knows? — it might have been favoured with a trip to an expensive villa in Tuscany where it might have received extremely generous hospitality.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

A retirement scheme.

Mr. Yeo

Possibly so. Anyway, a British resident who made an extended visit to another part of the EU might, during the course of that visit, travel from there to a non-rabies-free country, return to the EU country where the second home was maintained, and then return to Britain. I should be interested if the Minister could give assurances about such a situation, which might easily arise.

Mr. Brown

One of the conditions of the scheme proposed by Professor Kennedy is that the animal must be inside the European Union or one of the islands referred to in the scheme for at least six months. It will have to have been vaccinated, the effectiveness of the vaccine will have to have been checked, and the animal will have to be deloused 24 hours before coming in, so that parasites that might carry rabies or other equally damaging diseases will be killed off. The safeguards proposed by Professor Kennedy are severe.

Mr. Yeo

I understand that. I have read the safeguards, and I have a continuing concern about the first one, which stipulates that an imported animal should have been in an EU country for the six months before it enters Britain. I am not clear how that fact will easily be verified at the point of entry into Britain. In trying to avoid the risk that an animal might not have been continuously in the EU for the previous six months, there is a danger that we will effectively be relying on standards at every point of entry into the EU to be as stringent as ours. The consultation is no doubt intended to cover such points. There is a loophole which I hope will be dealt with.

My second concern relates to the possible enlargement of the European Union. If countries where rabies exists were admitted as EU members, how do the Government envisage that the safeguards will be maintained? Can the Minister say whether any of the countries likely to negotiate EU membership are not rabies free? Does he agree that, unless a special system of protection is established, the admission of a non-rabies-free country into the EU could drive a coach and horses through the controls that are envisaged?

In that connection, will the Government publish a list of countries outside the present EU that would qualify as rabies free? The list that is envisaged does not precisely coincide with the list defined by the World Health Organisation as rabies free. It would clearly be helpful to know which countries are envisaged.

My third concern relates to the technology that will be used to identify animals. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) will deal with the matter in more detail in his speech, so I shall flag it up briefly at this stage. I understand that more than one type of microchip is already in use. Is that likely to cause practical difficulties?

Like other hon. Members who will no doubt take part in the debate, I have a constituent who runs a quarantine kennel. Miss Valerie Sheldrake has raised her concerns with me, one of which relates to the microchip. She suggests that it can move around inside an animal and could be reprogrammed or replaced. I hope that the Government will comment on that risk in due course. Like many other kennel owners, Miss Sheldrake points out that she has invested heavily in the facilities that she provides for quarantine. I hope that the Government will take account of her concern about the future of her own and other people's investments.

It would be interesting to know what proportion of the animals that currently go into quarantine—about 8,000 a year—would still have to do so if the new system were adopted. It is clearly impossible to forecast how many animals will be brought into the country in the future. The Minister referred to 250,000. I assume that, whatever the number, the Government will be flexible about the number of staff needed to maintain the new controls adequately, given the assurance that we have received that the costs will be borne by the pet owners, not by the taxpayer.

The Opposition support in principle the case for a fundamental change to the quarantine laws. We believe that the change should take place only when the legitimate concerns about the risks and the effectiveness of the arrangements proposed have been satisfied. I welcome the way in which the Minister has addressed the problem, and the tone of his comments and his reassurances. We welcome the fact that the consultation is taking place. I hope that that will help to meet the concerns that I have outlined.

5.4 pm

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

I add my congratulations and welcome to my right hon. Friend the Minister on his first outing. He might remember coming down to my Dover and Deal constituency three months before the election and introducing me to the now famous pager. Much water has passed under the bridge since then.

One could easily be tempted to treat the subject of quarantine and the potential spread of rabies in an alarmist and emotive manner. I know that, in previous debates in the Chamber, that has happened. I shall avoid that temptation, but we cannot avoid the reality that rabies is, as Professor Kennedy states, still a horrific disease in animals and man". That has been acknowledged in the debate.

We should not ignore the fact that, last year, there were more than 100 reported cases of rabies in mammals in EU countries, and more than 3,000 reported cases in central and east European countries. No one would deny the seriousness of the subject, and the need to approach the changes and relaxation of controls with care and consideration. The Kennedy report reflects a measured approach. I am sympathetic to the animal welfare case presented by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

My constituency, Dover, is in the front line in the importation from mainland Europe of animals that might be infected with rabies. Officials in the port of Dover are committed to preventing the illegal importation of animals. East Kent has a significant number of boarding kennels which are licensed to hold animals in quarantine and whose primary business has evolved to meet the Government's requirements in respect of the existing quarantine laws. The vast majority of those kennels meet the high standards of care required of them.

There are some 80 licensed kennels in the United Kingdom. Almost 80 per cent. of those are members of their representative body, the Quarantine Association. The association understands the need for change, and wants the Government to understand the implications for its members' business if the sweeping changes proposed in the Kennedy report are implemented in full.

Mr. White

Given that the number of animals coming through the port would be much larger, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the ironic consequences of introducing the new system might be more animals in quarantine than there are at present, because they would fail the strict conditions laid down by the Government?

Mr. Prosser

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, but we would have difficulty convincing the kennel owners whose businesses go bust over the next three or four years that the proposals contain good news.

The kennel operators want to draw on their considerable experience and make positive and practical responses to the consultation, but they are deeply concerned about the uncertainty that will affect their businesses over the next few years. Kennel owners and their employees are worried about the impact of the changes on their businesses and the consequent loss of jobs. They realise that the present system, which has been in use since the turn of the century, is out of date and needs modernising, but they are anxious that all the necessary infrastructure should be in place before any new arrangements are implemented.

I was a little alarmed to hear suggestions from my right hon. Friend on the Front Bench about accelerated schemes, hurrying up the system and filling the channel tunnel with cats and dogs. We have had the present system for 100 years, and it is less than 100 days since the report was published. We should make a considered response and let the consultation process take its course over the next two months. We should listen to all the arguments, rather than rushing into change under pressure from a few particular lobbies.

While the association realises that the system needs reforming, kennel owners, and their association, have raised a couple of specific concerns. One that has been mentioned this afternoon involves lax border controls. An animal could be taken from one area to another and falsely licensed. The Minister has given some assurance on that in respect of the six-month rule, but we shall have to consider it a little more closely.

Mr. Loughton

I fully appreciate the interests of quarantine kennel owners in the hon. Gentleman's part of the country, but to coin a pun, one does not want to let the quarantine kennel owner's tail wag the animal welfare dog. Can he suggest a scheme allowing the 50 per cent. of quarantine businesses that will be lost under the proposals to receive some form of decommissioning compensation, perhaps along the lines of the scheme for the fishing industry? Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of that, and will he press the Minister for such a scheme?

Mr. Prosser

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated issues that I shall deal with later in my speech.

The second issue is the possibility that an animal owner living in, say, France might do a tour of central and eastern Europe before returning to France and crossing the channel. Can the Minister reassure us about that risk, which concerns proof of residence?

Kennel owners have also voiced concerns about the proposed means of validating incoming animals. Last year, 150,000 pets entered the country through the port of Dover. The bulk of them entered during the busy summer period. There would be major problems in dealing with the increased number that would result from the changes.

The proposals have implications for both airports and sea ports. Dover Harbour Board says that it will be pleased to discuss ways and means of handling any new arrangements, but would have to take a commercial approach to any additional facilities or boat space that it might be asked to provide. It emphasises the need to deal with different ports in different ways.

For instance, the recommendation that there should be a dedicated lane for traffic from ferries to the new inspection facility is simply impracticable for Dover, which is the busiest ferry port in the world. Last year, it handled more than 21 million passengers. It has seven berths with seven carriageways serving each "link span", and incoming traffic is separated from outgoing traffic by a complex arrangement of overhead roadways and underpasses. If one adds to that the squeeze on available land, the extreme difficulty of providing dedicated lanes for travellers with pets becomes obvious. However, the port is happy to explore other options for facilities within the port.

Some kennel owners have suggested alternative options. For example, pets could be removed, under appropriate security, to inland sites such as existing quarantine kennels. That would allow adequate space and time for checks, including, where appropriate, blood tests.

Kennel owners have other practical concerns which they want to put to the Government as part of the consultation process. They are particularly concerned about the uncertainty of the present climate of change, which means that they cannot produce business plans, reassure their staff about their future, or invest in their kennels. They rightly feel, having effectively been an instrument of Government policy for so many years, that, if the Government's change in policy now threatens their existence, it is reasonable to expect some decommissioning funding or other special support to help them either to close their businesses in an orderly way and meet redundancy liabilities or to adjust to the new circumstances.

The Quarantine Association believes that full implementation of the proposals would lose its members some 46 per cent. of the market. If the changes are followed by a relaxation in quarantine regulations in north America, they would lose a total of 79 per cent. of their work. Such a dramatic impact would drive smaller kennels out of business. The association anticipates that fewer than 20 businesses would survive and more than 60 would be driven into bankruptcy.

I urge the Minister to consider all the responses to the report so that he can give due regard to the input from the quarantine kennel industry and its staff. I hope that, as he moves towards decisions that may seriously affect the prospects of hundreds of kennel workers across the land, including my constituents in Dover, he will agree to meet some of their representatives and explore ways to ease their difficulties.

5.15 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

May I add my congratulations to the Minister of Agriculture on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box and on introducing this debate in such a non-partisan way? I fully understand the caveat that a significant number of agricultural issues need to be debated in the House, but it would be wrong of any of us to suggest that the issue is not of considerable concern to many people in the United Kingdom, as well as UK expatriates. The attention that the matter is at last receiving is long overdue.

As the Minister reminded the House, Sir Jerry Wiggin introduced the Agriculture Select Committee's report in 1994, when he was Chairman of that Committee. It said that the current quarantine system could no longer be justified and change was clearly overdue. At that time, the all-party parliamentary animal welfare group, which I had the privilege to chair, made it plain that we supported that view, and we have pressed for change ever since. I am delighted that the Parliamentary Secretary, who will wind up the debate, is in the Chamber because he has been a doughty fighter in the cause of change. I hope that my saying that does not embarrass him.

As the Minister said, the status quo is no longer an option. Even in the best quarantine kennels, quarantine is inhumane, to a large extent ineffective, and unnecessary. That is not to say that those of us who support change do not recognise the clear warnings that have been issued and the need to ensure that whatever replaces the quarantine system is every bit as secure as the current system. In that regard, the proposal by Professor Kennedy in his excellent report is not only as secure, but is arguably better.

It has already been said that significant numbers of animals are believed to be smuggled into the country by an increasing variety of means. It may originally have been by private yachts, but latterly it is by cross-channel ferry and, most recently, through the channel tunnel. We are led to believe that it is relatively easy for somebody who wishes to bring an animal into the UK illegally and to avoid quarantine to secure the services of a veterinary surgeon in northern France to have a cat or dog anaesthetised. It can then be put into the boot of a car with a blanket thrown over it, and it will not miaow or bark as it enters the country. We all know that, given the volume of traffic that now comes across the channel, the chances of detection are extremely remote. That is clearly going on, so to suggest, as some do, that the current system is somehow foolproof is very wide of the mark.

There is a tremendous incentive to smuggle animals into the country. The financial penalty of putting an animal into quarantine is £1,500 to £2,000 per animal, and many families have more than one animal. That is a great deal of money to spend for six months. That is not the animal lover's prime concern. What is, especially for the owner of a relatively elderly animal, is the animal's welfare. The owner desires not to be parted from that cat or dog for six months, so, because the animal lover knows that the animal is healthy, there is tremendous incentive to skirt round the rules, in the knowledge that no real harm will be done. However, there is always the danger that harm will be done and what Professor Kennedy is suggesting will therefore probably enhance rather than weaken the existing position.

As an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association, I attended its annual congress this year. It will not surprise hon. Members to learn that, following publication of Professor Kennedy's report, this issue was a major topic of discussion throughout the three days. The then president of the association made his view plain, and he represents the view of a considerable number of veterinarians, which we should not ignore. Although they are reasonably content for there to be change, they urge haste with caution.

We must put the proper safeguards in place. If something goes horribly wrong, the veterinarians will be right at the sharp end, dealing with the problem. It is therefore not entirely surprising that they, more than some others, are expressing concerns, but whereas they were cautious about the quality of vaccines, the efficacy of blood testing and the reliability of microchips when Sir Jerry Wiggin's Agriculture Committee report was published in 1994, they are now satisfied on all those counts.

Veterinarians are now concerned that implementation is secure, and that the facilities, the trained personnel and the checks and balances are in place to make sure that the system works as Professor Kennedy intends it to. That is a major shift in the opinion of those to whom we should listen most—people in the veterinary profession.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser). He represents a significant number of quarantine kennels, which are used by my constituents and many others using the channel ports, and I fully understand his desire to represent those interests. There is a significant concern here. It is not so long ago that a television programme "exposed" the Dover and Folkestone quarantine kennels. That was especially unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman will endorse, because the kennels had changed ownership by the time that the programme was transmitted. The new owners were attempting to clean up the act, invest in and improve the facilities, and bring those kennels up to standard.

Mr. Prosser

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the exposéprogramme on Channel 4 was filmed the day after the exchange had taken place? Since then, the new owner, whom I spoke to this morning, has invested more than £90,000 in cleaning up the kennel's act, making it respectable and achieving a caring arrangement. He is a animal lover and a pet owner. He says that he is in it purely for the love of the animals; I will not extend that argument too much, but he is dedicated to providing a careful and proper service.

Mr. Gale

I am very aware of all those things. I visited the kennels, and I hope and believe that I sought the hon. Gentleman's permission before I did so. He has put it clearly on the record that premises change hands, but there is another point.

The hon. Gentleman, having visited those kennels and the catteries, will be aware that there is an on-going programme of investment. I am concerned that, if we do not get a move on and the signals are not clear, and if provision is not made for the quarantine kennel owners, we shall effectively achieve planning blight—legislative blight, in this case.

What kennel or cattery owner will invest more in facilities that he or she believes may be redundant within two or three years? My fear is that, unless we move much more swiftly than has been suggested, standards will deteriorate and, as a consequence, animal welfare in quarantine kennels across the country will deteriorate. Owners simply will not be able to afford to invest, and what bank or lender would lend money to the proprietor of a business that is going to go out of business?

Although I do not seek to over-represent their cause, I believe that quarantine kennel and cattery owners have just cause to look to the House to secure their interests. They have been, effectively, acting on behalf of the Government, doing the business and the bidding of the regulatory process. People such as me have called on them to invest more, raise their standards and make sure that the animals in their care are well cared for. Having done that, we now have a responsibility to them.

As I suggested to the Quarantine Association a couple of years ago, it is possible to look to Europe, because we shall effectively be harmonising our regulations with those throughout the rest of the European Union, to allow freer movement of animals. If we are to do that, there is no reason why the EU should not look favourably, as it has on other agriculture issues, at what would be a modest contribution in European budgetary terms but what would be significant to the owners in terms of compensation for likely loss of business.

I want the process to be speeded up. I do not believe that it is necessary to take three years to get moving, and I am pleased that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is already considering staffing costs and ways of bringing the process forward. It should be possible to introduce a pilot scheme swiftly—not at the channel tunnel, but at either the port of Ramsgate or the port of Dover, as I proposed two years ago.

Four years ago, we proposed a pilot scheme on this basis: initially, but not for ever, quarantine kennel owners should collect animals from the port and take them to their kennels to hold overnight for blood tests and identification checks. There could be a problem at the ports. I do not want to make too much of another issue, but the port of Dover and other ports will be faced with the ludicrous imposition by Brussels, with the support of the Member of the European Parliament for East Kent, of the passenger registration system. That will cause interminable delay when it is introduced, and, not a green channel, but a channel for people with animals, would also cause severe delay.

I believe that the Minister could say now that those who can demonstrate, as Professor Kennedy requires, that their animals have been vaccinated, blood tested and microchipped should be able immediately to take advantage of such a system, provided that they are prepared to put their animals into quarantine kennels for a brief holding period while blood tests and identification checks are carried out. That would mean that we could take the heat out of the risk that was highlighted earlier and start immediately, rather than wait and risk further smuggling.

I go further: there is no reason whatever—my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) may want to touch on this—why, given the services of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, service men serving overseas should not immediately be allowed to embark down this road.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

I want to clarify a point. The hon. Gentleman suggests that animals should be blood tested on arrival in the United Kingdom. I thought that the idea was that they should be blood tested six months before, and that a microchip should be inserted. They would then have to go through a process similar to the use of a bar code in a supermarket.

Mr. Gale

The hon. Lady is right: that is Professor Kennedy's intention, and I am sure that that is what we shall arrive at. I am suggesting an interim measure to allow a pilot scheme to begin immediately, without the full ramifications of having to appoint and train staff and build and provide holding facilities at ports. If we have to wait for all that, there will inevitably be considerable delay.

I am suggesting to the Minister a way of getting this process up and running now without having to wait. If he can do that, it will enable him and his colleagues and veterinarians to study the process in practice. It will allow systems to be established for identification, vaccination and blood checks, and it will enable parasitology measures to take place, which are important as we are dealing with other problems as well as rabies. The sooner the Minister can get on with the job, the better, and I hope that he will be able to do so.

5.30 pm
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture on his exemplary introduction to the debate. From what he said, I am sure that the process will be dealt with cautiously and in great detail. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) apologised to my right hon. Friend, who was not a member of CND. If the hon. Gentleman is looking for targets, I am a minor one, because, like the Prime Minister, I was a member of CND. Unlike the Prime Minister, I still am a member—at least, I think so, because it seems to have given up collecting subs in the past few years.

I am glad of the opportunity to speak in favour of the recommendations in the Kennedy report—I have one or two minor reservations—and to congratulate his advisory group on the thoroughness of its work. It is remarkable how similar its central proposals are to those made by the Select Committee on Agriculture back in 1994, of which I was a member. There was a debate in the Chamber on 13 July 1995—some six months after the report. It is surprising that my speech and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston), the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), the Minister and the Chairman of the Select Committee, Sir Jerry Wiggin, if they had been made again today word for word, would have been directly germane to the discussion of the Kennedy report.

A couple of weeks ago, my good friend, Mrs. Mary Rees, the chairman of Lathom parish council in my constituency, told me that she was still nervous about the prospect of rabies. A decade or so ago, when it became clear that the channel tunnel was an inevitability, she expressed deep foreboding, in whatever forum she could find, about rabies entering the country. She had worked out that a fox can travel about 25 miles in a night, so, within 10 days, a rabid continental fox could be in Lathom—where, of course, it would want to go.

The Select Committee visited the channel tunnel before it was opened. We went inside it and saw that it was the one entry point where it was impossible for animals to come in unless they were deliberately smuggled in. It is ironic that there may be a pilot scheme through there, given that the company spent £20 million on defences against animals being brought into the country through the channel tunnel.

The fact that Mary Rees is still worried, and no doubt reflects the worries of many thousands of British people, shows the deep-seated and instinctive fear that rabies inspires.

Mr. Key

Has the hon. Gentleman pointed out to Mary Rees the evidence on page 224 of the report, which suggests that even she may not have to worry too much about this matter? It states: if 1000 dogs are imported each year one would expect that on average a dog incubating rabies might enter the country once every 1250 years.

Mr. Pickthall

Mary Rees is an elderly lady, but not quite that old. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, and I shall point that out to her to ease her mind.

As I said, there is a deep-seated and instinctive fear about rabies in this country, which, to all intents and purposes, has been rabies free for a century. That fear was reflected in the evidence given to the Select Committee in 1994 by the then Minister for Agriculture, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). She was always meticulous in her evidence to the Committee. In answer to specific questions, she said: there would be, rightly, an enormous outcry if a relaxation of the system that we already have resulted in an outbreak of the disease". Of course there would. She said: at this stage I am not persuaded that there should be further moves … I still believe that the overwhelming public view is that rabies is dangerous and frightening and that this"— quarantine— is the best, most effective way of preventing its outbreak in this country". She rightly said: it is an appalling disease, both for animals and for human beings. I would certainly not want to move in any direction that increased the likelihood of the incidence of rabies in this country. That is almost exactly the phrase that my right hon. Friend used.

I am quoting the right hon. Lady's perhaps over-cautious responses because they articulated the emotional response of citizens such as Mary Rees. They also more or less articulated my own feelings at the start of the Select Committee inquiry four years ago. Like most of the Committee members, I had a strong prejudice in favour of quarantine. It seemed to me that quarantine took advantage of our island status, it was a sensible bulwark against a horrible disease and it appeared to work. I believed that removing quarantine would seriously undermine public confidence. With the exception of Sir Jerry Wiggin and my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), the Committee shared that prejudice at the start of the inquiry.

By the time that the then Minister gave her evidence to the Committee at the end of its deliberations, we were unanimous in our belief that the alternatives to quarantine were infinitely preferable. Most of us had made a substantial U-turn on the basis of the evidence that we had heard. We were convinced beyond reasonable doubt, and we remain so.

We thought that the submission of our report to the Government made that crystal clear, but the then Minister's view prevented further action. It is important that Governments, for the most part, go with the grain of public opinion, especially on such big, emotive issues. However, there are occasions—this was, and still is, one of them—when Governments should take a lead in explaining why an emotional reaction of historic proportions must be tempered by hard evidence and new science.

The previous Government failed on that count, and I am more than pleased that my right hon. and hon. Friends have encouraged the public education process by setting up the reappraisal under Professor Kennedy. I also congratulate the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, members of the armed forces, Passports for Pets, the all-party committee and the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who has been meticulous member of that committee. Since 1994, they have taken part in an unwavering programme of public education on the alternatives to quarantine. I believe that that has made strong inroads into public prejudices on the issue. The public are not quite so terrified of possible alternatives to quarantines as they were four years ago.

The central reason why I changed my mind during the inquiry had nothing to do with sympathy for pet owners. Although I do sympathise with them, if the balance were between their natural attachment to their pets and the possibility of rabies, there would be no contest. My main concern, and that of my colleagues, was to recommend the best possible way of maintainin the United Kingdom's rabies-free status. The costs of quarantine, in both financial and emotional terms, were shown to be so huge as positively to encourage the smuggling of animals. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington and the hon. Member for North Thanet both put that point forcefully.

We became more than ever conscious of our vast and indented coastline, with its thousands of small harbours, and the huge increase in the use of small leisure craft and even business craft. Of course the alternatives recommended by the Select Committee, and refined and amplified by the Kennedy committee—vaccinations, blood tests, identification by microchip, health certificates and passports—involve costs, but nothing like the costs of quarantine to the individual concerned.

Whereas quarantine tempts otherwise honourable and honest people to smuggle—dishonest people will always smuggle: it is their business—the alternative gives those same people an incentive not only to comply with reasonable regulations, but to maximise the monitoring of their animals' health. The case for the alternatives to quarantine is not a sentimental response to the emotional ties of owners and pets, nor is it about helping the tourist trade. It is about positively improving our protection against rabies.

As I have said, the case for the Kennedy recommendations was effectively made four years ago, and I think that it was approved by most hon. Members on both sides of the House who followed the issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) and my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), the Parliamentary Secretary, made their general support for the alternatives clear before the last general election. For four years, the case has been examined, in public and in the trade press, and the Kennedy report has now set it out very clearly.

That brings me to one problem that I have with the report's recommendations, which others have mentioned and on which I shall be interested to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister. In recommendation 15, the advisory group said that the new system should not be adopted for, perhaps, three years. I agree with what has been said so far: surely that is much too long a delay. Of course time is needed to get the system right, to train staff, to inform the public and to organise premises, but I should have thought that could be achieved in a time nearer to one year. If the Government really feel that the whole scheme cannot be up and running until 2001, would they consider introducing pilot schemes as soon as possible—as the hon. Member for North Thanet suggested—in two or three ports of entry? Perhaps Dover should not be one, but Liverpool might do. It is rather a long way away, but it needs the jobs. My right hon. Friend the Minister seemed quite sympathetic to that idea.

Perhaps there should also be a pilot scheme at Heathrow—which is already fairly well equipped for the purpose—so that we can see how the system works, and meet the training requirements in the report. There is no point in beginning to train people if there is nowhere for them to be trained and, if we have pilot schemes, it may be possible to provide the necessary facilities.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could interpret the recommendations on European harmonisation in paragraphs 10.5.5 and 10.5.7. I understand our legal obligations under the treaty of Rome and so on, but I fear that—unless I have misread those recommendations—we might create a bit of a pickle. In its summary, the advisory group recommends that the Minister introduce the new system specifically and explicitly as a transitional system". That is fine. It also recommends that the Minister simultaneously seek to promote a harmonised EU system of controls against rabies which will reflect the concerns and meet the needs identified in our recommendations. That is a two-track business. Thirdly, the advisory group recommends that, until rabies has been effectively eradicated from the EU and appropriate EU-wide measures put in place in respect of animals to be imported from third countries where rabies is endemic (including the candidate countries of eastern Europe), the Minister should, if necessary, seek a derogation from a harmonised EU system to allow checks to take place at British points of entry. Unless I have misread the proposals, we could end up with a wish-mash of systems—for which the Government would be responsible—that in some ways contradicted each other. That could create more of a worry among kennel owners who still have some part of their business to run over the next few years.

Nevertheless, the report offers great promise. It confirms the strongly held belief of many that the existing system of quarantine is no longer the best way of dealing with the inward movement of animals from what are virtually risk-free countries. Its proposals would establish a much stronger and fairer system, while maintaining powerful safeguards—in fact, the same safeguards—against the entry of animals from risky countries. That is only a personal opinion, but I think that we should class the United States and Canada as risky countries until they can be conclusively proved not to be.

Incidentally, the implementation of the proposals would be an enormous relief for thousands of individuals, especially in the armed forces, whose jobs necessitate their living abroad with their families and moving back and forth. It would also help the tourist trade at the margins—although I must say that I contemplate the prospect of thousands of foreign tourists arriving with their dogs with no pleasure at all.

Those last two factors, however, are bonuses. The main point of the Kennedy recommendations is safety and common sense. Parliament, and the Government, have a duty to sell them to those in the United Kingdom, such as Mary Rees, who have a deep and abiding fear that quarantine has so far helped to allay. It is our duty to explain in detail that the new measures will constitute a better, not a weaker, system of control.

5.46 pm
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) performed a service by reminding us so lucidly of the background to the Agriculture Committee's deliberations in 1994, and the reasons—which he gave fairly and coherently—why it reached its decisions and its vantage point.

The Minister described himself as sympathetic to the Kennedy report—I hasten to add that Professor Kennedy is no relation—and his stance has been broadly echoed in the House. This is one occasion—another may be next week's agriculture debate, which will arise from a Conservative motion—when the Conservative spokesman and I can make common cause. Given another issue that is being dealt with outside the House today, perhaps we are all into constructive opposition—on this issue, if not on others.

I agree with the fairly consensual points that have been made about changes to the quarantine system. However, although concern has been expressed about the timing, we should bear in mind the fact that the present system has been in place since 1901, and has been stupendously successful. Parliament is right to tread with caution, given the horrendous down side—rabies—which is the alternative to the status quo. But, as the hon. Member for West Lancashire said so persuasively, given the costs of quarantine—which are undoubtedly driving some people into illegal activity—it is surely the lesser of two evils to opt for a system that is likely to deliver than to stick with a system that, at least potentially, is delivering less well. That is the balance of probability that should commend itself to the House.

Dr. Tonge

I remind my hon. Friend that many pet owners act responsibly and vaccinate their pets—which would thus qualify for a pet passport or microchip—but still have to pay quarantine costs to kennels. I am particularly reminded of my constituents, the two dogs Whisky and Soda, who have already suffered six months' quarantine for this country after their master dealt with Hong Kong. They could easily have to go through the process again if their master, useful man that he is, is sent to Europe in another role. I make a plea to the Minister to remember Whisky and Soda.

Mr. Kennedy

Anyone who knows my personal habits knows that I am always willing to defer to whisky and soda, although not necessarily of the canine variety. My hon. Friend makes a telling point, which has been well trailed through the national and international press by her constituent, Mr. Chris Patten, although what she says may be a strong argument not to offer him a job at the EU Commission. However, I shall not stray too far down that road.

Joking aside, it was useful that someone with a high public profile was able to draw attention to the sense of frustration that so many people have felt as a result of the current arrangements. Indeed, that is partly what lay behind the Kennedy committee proposals.

It is obviously extremely important that documentation and vaccination requirements are met. Proper border controls are also important in preventing unprotected animals from entering the country, and that relates to monitoring generally.

Hon. Members have mentioned kennel owners, and gun control may be a more valid comparison than fisheries decommissioning policy in this case. When, under the new Government, the House passed primary legislation on guns, we dealt with the issue of compensation for those who would lose out in terms of business. I accept that the comparison is not ideal, but there is a legitimate argument that the Government should consider those people with businesses that carry out, albeit privately, a Government agency function and who, as a result of primary legislation, may be financially disadvantaged.

I take this opportunity to make a plea for those people who have to use guide dogs—there is a strong case for exempting them from the current rules on travel outwith this country. I expect that all hon. Members have heard from constituents who have found themselves in farcical situations when travelling abroad on holiday. They have discovered—in some cases, not even at the point of exit from this country but when they have been in transit—that they were not to be allowed to have their guide dogs with them on arrival. That is a bizarre state of affairs for people who are self-evidently dependent on a guide dog for access and mobility and for their capacity to enjoy visits to the continent or elsewhere abroad. I hope that the Government will be particularly sympathetic, even under the current arrangements, to the rights of disabled people, especially those who use guide dogs.

As has been clear from this debate, the House is generally supportive of the Government's stance on the Kennedy recommendations, and I hope that we can make further legislative progress on the matter sooner rather than later.

5.54 pm
Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) mentioned the fact that people with guide dogs have faced great problems in travelling abroad because of the quarantine laws. That point has been raised in the considerable postbag—more than 100 letters—that I have received on this subject from my constituents. All those who have written have been in favour of the Kennedy recommendations, and some have gone further, wanting quarantine to be ended immediately, although I do not go along with that view.

There has been consensus in this important debate and I, too, welcome the Kennedy report and its recommendations. A review of quarantine is now long overdue, not least, as the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) argued, on animal welfare grounds. We can debate quarantine reform because veterinary science has developed to such an extent that there is a viable alternative to quarantine—vaccination, blood testing and microchipping.

We also have a far greater knowledge of animal behaviour and the effects of the long-term separation of animals from their owners. Indeed, it has been known for some time that dogs can develop behavioural problems as a result of being separated from their homes and owners. Now, however, we own far more cats than dogs; we seem to be turning into a nation of cat owners, of whom I am one. I have owned cats for 35 years—

Dr. Palmer

Hear, hear.

Ms Jones

My hon. Friend says, "Hear, hear."

I regard myself as a responsible owner, and the House may be interested to hear that I made electoral history last year as the first Member of Parliament to choose to be photographed not with the nearest and dearest of my family—my husband and son—but with one of my kittens. What greater commitment could anyone have to a pet?

There has been a great deal of research into the behaviour of cats, and it has been discovered that cats suffer far more than dogs in quarantine. Two of the saddest letters that I have received were from constituents explaining how their pets had died in quarantine, not from rabies or parasitic diseases from abroad, but, after about four months in a kennel and a cattery respectively, from diseases caught from the other animals.

There is nothing sadder than having to part from one's pet when it has to be put in quarantine. Pet owners do not want their pets to return to this country with rabies, but they do not want them to die from another disease that has been picked up in this country. Now that there is a real alternative to quarantine, the animal welfare argument should be given due weight in our consideration of the Kennedy report.

Until we manage to eradicate rabies worldwide, there will always be a risk that it could get into this country. I have long thought that our analysis of where the risk lies has been wrong. We have assumed that people will get rabies from pets brought in from abroad, but more and more Britons travel abroad to countries that have rabies—the House of Commons Library came up with the figure that a quarter of summer holidaymakers from Britain regularly travel to Turkey, the United States of America, Kenya and other countries that are known as rabies black spots—so rabies is more likely to be brought back here by someone who, perhaps through lack of caution, has been bitten by a rabid animal abroad.

Every time I go abroad on a ferry, I am struck by the emotive posters warning of the dangers of rabies from bringing pets into the country, but I wonder how much information is given to those travelling to countries where there is known to be a risk. We should consider an education campaign aimed at travellers, because we must reassess the source of the risk of rabies ever getting back into this country, which of course we all hope will not happen.

Moving from quarantine to vaccinating, blood testing and microchipping will certain mean upheaval, but, since 1994, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has accepted that animals imported for sale can come in on the vaccination rather than the quarantine route, so we clearly already have the beginnings of that way of controlling rabies.

Three years will be too long a delay. I agree with those who have suggested a pilot scheme based on vaccination in one of our ports where animals come in, in line with the European Union directive. That should be started within a year.

6.2 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

In all fairness, I should declare an interest at the outset. My dear, beloved mother-in-law, who lives in the United States, is deterred from visiting this country frequently by our existing excellent quarantine provisions. I must stress that that is not the reason why I intend to argue in favour of keeping the existing regime.

Nor, indeed, is my main reason for expressing severe reservations about the proposals the fact that we have an alarming degree of consensus in the House. I have an instinctive suspicion of consensus, especially when it is cosy. Many of us recall that, when there is almost complete agreement on something in the House, we often end up with a disaster. I need not give a catalogue, as hon. Members of all parties will be familiar with what I have in mind.

There is no harm in some dissent being expressed on an occasion such as this, if only for the sake of pointing out some aspects that have not yet been covered. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will not take it amiss when I express my regret at the absence of the Minister of State. When I raised the matter of conditions other than rabies in a debate on the Animal Health (Amendment) Bill—an excellent little provision with the total support of the House, including me, because it was relevant to standards of quarantine provision—the Minister of State said: 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"— that was a reference to me— referred. We should therefore not rush to 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."—[Official Report, 27 March 1998; Vol. 309, c. 851.]

That gave me the impression that the Minister of State had a balanced view. I would not dream of implying that the Minister of State's absence has any significance.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I am glad to explain that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has an important engagement this evening and tomorrow for the official opening of the cattle traceability scheme, for which he has responsibility. All of us as Ministers have spent a great deal of time talking to, and paying attention to, different people and organisations throughout the country, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my hon. Friend has important duties to perform. His absence is not due to any particular view on the issue. As the right hon. Gentleman said, his view is perfectly balanced and in line with the Government's position on the Kennedy report.

Mr. Forth

I am delighted to hear that the Minister of State is balanced. That is a great reassurance to us all.

My primary reservation can be characterised, rather inelegantly, under the heading, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". We have had some interesting exchanges along those lines, and of course I am not saying that the existing quarantine arrangements are perfect or foolproof. Frequent reference has been made to the likelihood that animals have been smuggled into the country to get around the regulations, and I do not doubt that that happens, but the existing regime is simple, straightforward and easily understood, and those important virtues should not be overlooked.

There is a parallel with the argument, which was started today, about the virtues of first past the post—an electoral system that is elegant, simple and easily understood—as against the nonsense of the proposals of the partial Jenkins commission, which are bizarre and incomprehensible. That may remind us of the proposals in the Kennedy report. The existing regime has the strength of simplicity.

My next point is particular to me, and I expect few people to accept it. To my mind, the proposals to do away with our present arrangements are yet another diminution of the concept of the territoriality of the British Isles and the United Kingdom, and yet another example of the way in which proposals are made to reduce the significance of our borders and our nation as it has been historically understood.

Dr. Palmer

Does the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's position not suggest that we should introduce quarantine for foreign humans?

Mr. Forth

I am always open to any such helpful suggestion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I could get together and work on that one. I can think of many foreign humans who are extremely undesirable and whom I would not want here unless they had a microchip inserted, were vaccinated and were otherwise identified.

My point is unashamedly political. Each time we move in the direction of the Kennedy report, we reduce the possibility of continuing to identify ourselves as a separate nation with border controls that have always been, to my mind, an important part of nationhood and national identity. I regret that, and believe that it is an important consideration that should not be cast lightly aside.

My main objection arises from my doubts about the safety and integrity of the process that is suggested. I had some research done into the incidence of rabies in Europe, the European Union, the European Economic Area—the European continent as a whole—which came up with some fascinatingly different figures. For example, figures relating to the first quarter of 1998 suggest that, in Europe as a whole continent—charmingly put—1,711 cases were reported in domestic animals. Another set of figures suggests that, in Europe as a whole, there were 2,257 cases. I think that that was for a whole year for domestic animals. Referring to the most recent quarter, a publication rather charmlessly called "RABNET" states: During 'This Quarter', 1711 rabies cases were reported in Europe". It then gives details for different countries.

The relevant point was made earlier that, whatever the position in the European Union as constituted—rabies is still endemic in certain parts of the EU—there is a considerable degree of endemic rabies in the countries that it is proposed to bring into an enlarged EU. That suggests that a risk element is involved, perhaps not so much in the existing EU as in an EU enlarged as proposed. I hope that the Government will weigh that up carefully when they consider the effectiveness, efficacy and safety of the proposed regime against the background of the incidence of rabies and the degree of increased land travel that is bound to take place across greater Europe, if I may thus characterise it.

Mr. Loughton

Would my right hon. Friend concede that, according to the figures for last year, there were apparently only 12 cases in the whole of greater Europe, as he calls it, of humans contracting rabies, of which none ended in death? Of those 12 cases, 10 came from the Russian Federation, one from Lithuania and one from within the EU—France.

Mr. Forth

That is reassuring, but I am not sure whether it is reassuring enough for us to introduce an element of greater risk, if indeed that were involved in a change of regime. I do not know whether the elderly lady constituent of the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) would be reassured by that. To reassure her and many like her is an important part of this whole debate.

The British Veterinary Association has been mentioned. I have here a news release issued by it in which the BVA vice-president, Mr. Ted Chandler, said: The present quarantine policy has served this country well over many years and while it is indeed true that the science is now available to justify a new approach in theory, the capacity and commitment to enforce a new system in practice is quite another matter. Neither the Government nor the profession should be under any illusion that new laws and a new system of rabies control can simply be created, brought in and made to work. If as a result of change rabies were to be introduced to this country, there would be the most serious consequences for all involved. If and when the Government takes a decision to change, consult and subsequently legislate, there must be no short cuts on enforcement. There can be no compromise on professional vigilance and there must be no collapse of public confidence. The task for Government is daunting. The aim of the veterinary profession must be to support only those changed procedures which meet their scientific criteria and are capable of being enforced. I quoted that news release at some little length because the views of the veterinary profession are important. If the Government are to make the changes that are proposed in the report, it is important to make absolutely sure that the vets are fully on board, not only because their views matter, perhaps more than any other single group of people, but because they and their professional colleagues in this country and, more important, abroad will be crucially involved in making the proposals work.

My greatest reservation arises for the following reason. Throughout the debate, it has been claimed that the present quarantine arrangements, because they are expensive and unpleasant, deter people from using them and encourage smuggling. The animal welfare point has been made by many who have contributed. I looked at the proposals in the report with growing disbelief and asked myself these questions. Is it likely that people who wish to take their pets abroad and bring them back will go through the process described in the report? Will microchips be implanted in those pets? Will people have their pets vaccinated? Will the pets have the required blood test before re-entry at a laboratory approved by the United Kingdom? Will such laboratories be handy and close enough for people easily to fulfil that requirement? Will they get the treatment 24 hours before re-entry for the conditions other than rabies that are mentioned—I am glad that they are mentioned—in the report? What about the person who has to change plans at the last minute and is faced with the choice either of finding somewhere for the treatment or of taking the risk of smuggling the pet back into the United Kingdom?

The requirements for certification involve finding a competent authority, filling out a single sheet of paper, having a unique identification number and a qualified veterinarian. The report rather quaintly states, although I understand why, that black ink must not be used. That is presumably so that the paper cannot be easily photocopied or forged. The more I thought about that exhaustive and exhausting list of requirements, the more I wondered whether it would be likely that even the most devoted, dedicated pet owner who did not wish to fall foul of the new regime could fulfil all those requirements in all reasonable circumstances. I think not.

My worry is that, if we make the proposed change, having persuaded ourselves of the disadvantages of the present regime, the new regime would be more bureaucratic, more complicated and more difficult in many ways for pet owners to adhere to. Therefore, in the end, it may not have anything like the desired effect. We may end up with a worse system than the one that we have. As is traditionally said in these cases, I hope that I am proved wrong.

I am worried that so many people are rushing to embrace this proposal so whole-heartedly without expressing sufficient concern about its complexities, its bureaucratic nature and the likelihood that it will deter people from ensuring, as we all wish, that animals are free of rabies and other unpleasant conditions and that those conditions are not brought into this country. For that reason and the others that I have given, I remain to be convinced.

6.18 pm
Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)

It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who made some pertinent points in his valuable contribution. He is right to say that there is always a danger of rushing into changes. The context of my speech, however, will be in total opposition to what he has said. Nevertheless, it is vital that we hear such opinions because many of our constituents feel the same. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said earlier, 10 per cent. of the respondents to the consultation at this stage have expressed some opposition.

When I received my first correspondence saying that a constituent wanted to see me at my surgery about passports for pets, I was reminded of a story told by a Conservative Member. He said that at his first surgery, somebody wanted to extend the franchise to the canine variety. His constituent thought that he had rather an intelligent dog and that the franchise should be extended to it.

Dr. Palmer

Was its name Whisky?

Mr. Reed

I think that they were called Whisky and Soda.

I was more fortunate as my constituent explained the reasons for the passport for pets scheme. I was more than happy to listen and to take the arguments on board. During the past 12 months or so, I have become quite deeply involved in the issue. We need to reassure our citizens that whatever replaces the current scheme is satisfactory and, more importantly, maintains the United Kingdom as a rabies-free zone.

The case for ending quarantine has been made forcefully this evening and it is not necessary for me to repeat all the arguments. However, I support the need for change in the cost to the individual as £1,000 to £1,500 is rather expensive. For many people it is a substantial sum to find in one go. Many people love their animals and pets play a vital role in their lives, as my constituency case demonstrates.

The welfare issue is important and has been touched on in the debate. The figures suggest that, even if we included the United States in the scheme, some 29 per cent. of animals entering the country would still need to be kept in quarantine, so we cannot let up on ensuring that welfare standards are maintained. We should not ignore the issue simply because we are moving to a different system.

The world has moved on. I am not a scientist, but the evidence in the Kennedy report suggests that the risk is small—there were 12 cases in the wider European area. If only 12 humans out of a population of some 500 million contracted rabies, the risk is extremely small. If the proposed scheme involves only a small additional risk, it is probably one worth taking.

Smuggling continues to be widespread. We have heard anecdotal evidence of that this evening and I am sure that we all have constituency cases. Since I have discussed the issue on local radio and with the local media, I have been inundated with examples.

My only personal experience of the issue was in Germany a few years ago when there was a rabies scare in the area where I was staying, so I am aware of the fear that rabies causes in the local population.

I wish to mention a constituency case that urges me to make two specific points that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will consider in the final implementation of the scheme. They concern the time scale with the delay of up to three years and the exclusion at this stage of the United States.

My constituent, Mrs. Lily Rigley, has an 82-year-old sister who moved to the United States some 30 years ago. All her family there have now passed away, so she is on her own and now wishes to return to the United Kingdom to live with her sister in Loughborough. She lives in Florida, so she will definitely be travelling in the right direction. Loughborough is an extremely attractive place. However, her sister Margaret is blind and has a guide dog.

Mr. Paice

She will not know if it is any better, then.

Mr. Reed

Even if she were fully sighted, she would appreciate the delights of Loughborough. If Margaret were to return to the United Kingdom now, her guide dog would be placed in quarantine for six months, creating enormous upheaval in terms of her mobility and her life style. It is quite worrying for her in that, because of her age, her friends in the United States have diminished in number. She finds it extremely difficult to cope and she would desperately like to return to the United Kingdom.

Lily Rigley in my constituency and her sister Margaret in the United States have been excellent campaigners. They have contacted an enormous number of American senators and I appear to be on all their mailing lists. I have been inundated with e-mails. Information technology makes some things rather difficult as e-mails are all too easy to pass around.

The Kennedy report recommends that a further study is necessary. It has already carried out a risk assessment which concludes that there would be a slight additional risk if the scheme were extended to the European Union. However, it is such a very slight risk that I urge my hon. Friend to consider implementing the scheme as quickly as possible.

When she heard about the report on the news, Margaret Nash booked her airline ticket and arranged to return to the United Kingdom just before Christmas. One of the hardest things that I have had to do as a constituency Member was to phone Lily Rigley and ask her to tell her sister to cancel her ticket as we do not change the law that quickly in the United Kingdom. I am proud that, in the past 18 months, the Government have introduced many measures very speedily and I hope that they address this issue with the same urgency.

If we were to start some of the background work now and set up a pilot study, perhaps fast-tracking individuals such as those with guide dogs would be an ideal solution. Margaret Nash had already booked her ticket. I am sure that others feel equally anxious to come to the United Kingdom, and having heard about the issue on the world news, they will feel that the time has come to do so. Unfortunately, some may be prepared to take the risk of smuggling, perhaps assuming that, if the Government are considering changing the system, they may not prosecute them. I hope the signal goes out that that is not the case. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will repeat that, in the meantime, the quarantine regulations will continue to be enforced strictly. That is another difficulty that will arise if we delay the scheme for three years, as is mentioned in the Kennedy report.

The recruitment and training of the 43 staff could start fairly quickly. I cannot understand how it could take up to three years. If someone were employed to implement the strategy and set up the programme, I do not understand the time scale of three years.

I wanted to keep my remarks brief, highlighting my concerns on behalf of my constituent which have led to my involvement in the on-going debate. I particularly emphasise the points that I made about the timing of the scheme. It has been discussed since the Select Committee report in 1994. There has been plenty of debate in the House and the country, and I know from my postbag that many of my constituents are concerned about the issue. I am more than happy to suggest that we implement the recommendations in the Kennedy report as quickly as possible and give serious consideration to including the United States in the scheme.

6.28 pm
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

I am afraid that I am about to disappoint my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) by adding to the rather cosy agreement that, with his exception, has existed on both sides of the House.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate on four counts. First, I speak as vice-chairman of the Conservative animal welfare group. Secondly, I represent the closest channel port to London; I am not touting for the business of a pilot scheme as we do not have a passenger ferry, although Shoreham airport could be used. Thirdly, I am a supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and its campaign on quarantine and many other dog-related subjects, and I am a co-supporter of the Registration of Dogs Bill, which, alas, did not make it on to the statute book. Finally, and perhaps, uniquely, I speak also as a Member who has a constituent who was bitten last year by a rabid bat, which had apparently fare-dodged a cross-channel ferry to Newhaven. I may, therefore, be able to speak with a little more authority than many of my colleagues.

We have already heard that Chris Patten said that the existing law is a painful and expensive farce. I can infer from what some hon. Members have said that quarantine and rabies are still something of a taboo subject, one of the last taboos in this country. One conjures up images of people manning the barricades, jealously guarding our boundaries against a dreadful, filthy, foreign disease. That is a rather outmoded concept. Yet, when the channel tunnel was being discussed, some people whipped up hysteria by saying that rats and other creatures would flood across from the continent, and that we would have rabies within a matter of days. Of course, that has not happened.

The truth is that the quarantine system has the potential to do more harm than good. Most hon. Members have mentioned the greater risk from smuggling, which may be much more dangerous, and which is certainly not on the wane. We have heard less about the enormous discomfort and stress that is caused to cats and dogs that have to go into quarantine, as well as that caused to their owners.

I welcome the Kennedy report; such a report is long overdue. Many things have happened since the report of the Select Committee on Agriculture of November 1994. The campaign for passports for pets has matured greatly, and the experiments in Scandinavian countries have proved largely successful. I do not see why we cannot base a scheme on those experiments. The technology of microchipping has advanced enormously, too, into a simple and straightforward process. On the continent itself, enormous progress has been made towards combating fox rabies, which was a big problem in the past, but which is certainly diminishing.

The report is detailed, balanced and welcome to all animal lovers, and we should note that there are around 6.9 million dog owners in the United Kingdom. The report also has implications for other measures to encourage more responsible ownership of pets, such as the dog registration scheme that many of us supported. Alas, a Bill to introduce the scheme failed, just as the earlier ten-minute Bills to amend the quarantine law, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), failed.

Mr. Morley

The Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) completed all its stages and is now law.

Mr. Loughton

We may be talking about different ten-minute rule Bills.

Mr. Morley

The Animal Health (Amendment) Act 1998.

Mr. Loughton

I defer to the Minister's greater wisdom. The measure introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West would have tackled quarantine specifically, and that did not progress.

Some 5,000 dogs and 3,000 cats are in quarantine each year. Those figures have been relatively static over the past 25 years, although the figure for dogs has dropped over the past year, which suggests that people anticipate a change in the law. If they do not get one sooner rather than later, there will be a good deal of angst. As the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) mentioned, there is the possibility that people may flout the law if to do so will soon not be an arrestable offence.

The trauma and stress inflicted on pets themselves should not be underestimated. Six months in quarantine is three and a half dog years, which is a large chunk of an animal's life. The cost can be around £1,200 for a cat and about £2,300 for a large dog. There are other animals: the cost for a chinchilla is £692; for a guinea pig or ferret £434; and for hamsters and rats—for those who value their pets so highly—£247. Out of 200,000 cats and dogs imported over the past 25 years, there have been four possible cases of rabies, although all of them were questionable. During the same period, 2,800 animals in quarantine have died, 1,200 of them during the past 10 years.

There is a question mark over the standard of quarantine kennels. Although there are many good ones, some anomalies were highlighted recently in a Channel 4 programme. Owners have no right to an independent inspection of their animals' living conditions. In 1995, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food received 35 complaints of animal cruelty in quarantine and kennels.

Across the world, 35,000 people die of rabies. It is a virulent, important and dangerous disease. The majority of deaths happen on the Indian sub-continent. I have spoken already, but will remind my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, of the risk we face—that only 12 people have had the disease in Europe, none of whom have died, over the past year. There were around 5,000 cases of animal rabies in greater Europe last year, but that was the lowest figure ever. It was just 20 per cent. of the comparable figure from 1989. The problem has certainly lessened.

The truth is that quarantine is not preventing anything. It causes harm to animals, and distress and cost to their owners. The risk of rabies in the UK is small and diminishing. The Kennedy report offers something far more effective in the form of vaccination. We should remember, too, that quarantine is unfair not only to members of the armed forces who often travel over borders to reside in Germany or other places, but to those in the diplomatic service whose life styles take them abroad. It also prevents many Britons from holidaying on the continent if they wish to take their pets with them. In the spirit of wishing to encourage greater European understanding—though not necessarily harmonisation of systems—I believe that that would be helpful.

Smuggling is alarming. Between 1988 and 1995, there were 769 recorded instances of animals being illegally imported to the UK. That is the tip of the iceberg as those are the ones that were caught. The RSPCA estimates that, each year, at least 1,000 animals are smuggled into the UK illegally, of which only about 10 per cent. are detected. There are also anti-quarantine activists who uses quasi-guerrilla tactics. One Chichester-based organisation regularly sends out detailed newsletters on how to transport animals through the channel tunnel without being caught. That is big business in some parts of the country.

There are big anomalies in our present system. Ours is the only country in the world to operate a compulsory six-month detention period, with the exception of the Hawaiian islands. Australia and New Zealand have recently modified their regulations for animals coming from rabies-free countries. Japan has no quarantine regulations, and it is rabies free. The experience of the Norwegian and Swedish systems shows that they can work. Those systems involve vaccination, antibody testing and passports. There is also, importantly, no cost to the taxpayer in those countries. Monitoring the current system alone costs the Exchequer about £1.25 million in respect of inspecting quarantine premises, testing animals and publicity about rabies.

I agree with the Kennedy proposals, which are common sense, because vaccination is a cure while quarantine is not. Vaccination ensures that animals do not contract rabies. The terms for revaccination and proper accreditation of laboratories are sensible.

I strongly favour giving animals proper passport identification documents, which is now easy with microchips. Some hon. Members mentioned the inconvenience of microchips, but they are the size of a grain of rice. It is a simple, virtually painless injection, over in a matter of seconds, and it costs only a few pounds. It is not costly or complicated; any vet worth his salt could administer it. The cost of the registration scheme, and its paperwork and everything that goes with, it has been estimated by the RSPCA at £300 to £400, which is a substantial discount on the average quarantine fees faced by owners. The scheme does them a financial favour.

One matter in the identification procedure to which I might take exception is the suggestion that uniquely numbered microchips cannot be chosen by the dogs' owners. That is a shame. Like personalised number plates, they could raise a good deal of revenue for good causes. The possibility of Fifi 1, Posh Dog 2 or—most exclusive of the lot—K9, makes me think that we are missing a trick and an extra form of revenue for dog welfare.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

I have come late to the debate, but I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend. I sympathise with these ideas generally. Is there any danger that a microchip inserted in a pet that has gone through all the registration procedures could be removed and inserted in another that has not?

Mr. Loughton

That is a pertinent question that I raised recently with the RSPCA. It is integral to the project that the microchip inserted in the dog matches the paperwork. There is a double check. If the microchip scan shows a poodle, but an Irish wolfhound has been presented, something is amiss. There are many inbuilt safety measures.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

What if it is another poodle?

Mr. Loughton

As the process involves blood testing, there is scope to take DNA samples. The RSPCA has considered all manner of solutions. Through the PetLog scheme, 355,000 dogs have been microchipped. If people are worried because all these hounds will have to be microchipped, let me say that many already have been. Regardless of the quarantine laws, I would like all dogs to he microchipped because that would bring about greater responsibility in the ownership of dogs. PetLog, a scheme run by the RSPCA and the Kennel Club, means that we have an increasingly sophisticated database for dogs. It gets 600 new applications every day.

We are out of step with our European partners. France has had a permanent compulsory identification system since the beginning of the year. In the Netherlands, all commercially traded dogs must be permanently identified, mostly with microchips. Germany has a compulsory dog identification scheme, as do Denmark, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland and many others. We are behind the times.

The system has applications elsewhere, especially with dog registration. The Kennedy report having conceded that the principle that dog registration is achievable and desirable, I urge the Minister to reconsider the possibility of a registration scheme for all dogs in Britain, regardless of whether they go on holidays across the channel. The problem is that more than 50 per cent. of our 6.9 million dogs stray each year. Traffic accidents, biting people, attacks on livestock and the time of police and council officers in seeking to reunite dogs with their owners cost more than £40 million. There are also the cases of cruelty to dogs. In 1997, the RSPCA brought 1,092 dog cruelty cases to court. Some 100,000 stray dogs have to be destroyed. It is a big problem. Microchipping those dogs would make the job of reuniting them with their owners much easier and would place the onus of responsibility on owners, so that, if they do not take care of their pets, dogs will be identified and the full force of law brought to bear.

I have some concerns about things that are not in the report and about some things that are, but should be modified. The major one is the three-year delay. It should be 18 months at the most. The delay can only encourage more smuggling in the short term. Some ports of entry are virtually already equipped to handle such a system. The simple technology that I have described is easy to provide. I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of man to find 43 enforcement officers and train them in a simple procedure that is not much more complicated than that used by the average checkout assistant at Sainsbury or Tesco in running a bar code scanner across the microchip. If the procedure is beyond the wit of civil servants, will the Minister consider putting it out to tender for an agency or private contractor to set up the scheme more quickly, or could we use the expertise available in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps? I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) on that. There are many ways to speed things up.

My second concern is the countries covered. The World Health Organisation has categorised 46 countries as rabies free. Many are outside the European Union, have land borders and would be excluded, including Switzerland, which has a high standard of dog care and registration. North America, with the exception of Hawaii, is another area that frequently comes up, and it has some of the highest veterinary standards in the world. Of the dogs and cats brought into quarantine last year, slightly more than 26 per cent. came from north America, easily the second highest figure after the 38 per cent. from the EU.

Hon. Members will have had many e-mails from the persistent Mrs. Gloria Glammeyer from the United States. Her latest e-mail complained about blatant discrimination against the United States … I thought that Britain and America shared a close camaraderie as sister countries. Presumably, she has a dog that she particularly wants to bring to Britain, such is the ferocity of her e-mails, although I have never met her and she has no connection with my constituency so far as I know.

The third point, which was partially tackled by the Minister, is non-qualifying countries. We must ensure that a proper system is in place so that unscrupulous owners from a country such as South Africa do not bring their pets to a less rigorous EU country, reclassify them as EU dogs or cats and import them into the UK. A few years ago, a South African dog imported to Spain, which was claimed to be rabies free, sparked off a new spread of rabies. If we introduce all those measures and people flout the law and smuggle pets despite the ease of the system, the fines or terms of imprisonment should be increased. We must increase the penalties to act as a deterrent. There would be no excuse for people who still flouted the law.

The fourth consideration involves the administering of drugs for ticks and worms to animals within 24 hours of importation. That is a new idea. It is not currently required under the Balai arrangements governing the commercial trading of cats and dogs, and I believe that it should be detached from the quarantine issue. I think that it is a separate matter, and I hope that considerations in that area will not delay the speedy implementation of the changes.

The fifth issue involves the ferries. I hope that the Government will issue some guidance to ferry companies—particularly those operating ferries on longer crossings, which will need specific accommodation and exercise areas for pets in transit.

The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) referred to the legitimate case of kennel owners. I believe that they should receive some form of compensation, probably centred within the European Union. Some 46 per cent. of quarantined dogs and cats come from within the EU and, if the present proposals are agreed, kennel owners will lose virtually half of their business. If North America were also included in the new arrangements, only 29 per cent. of quarantine business would remain with the 80 or so kennels operating in this country. That must mean bankruptcy for the vast majority of them, particularly the smaller kennels.

This is an area where it is appropriate to use that horrible word "modernise". We need to modernise and update our quarantine system. It is self-defeating for our system to be so different from those operating in the rest of the world. We have the technology to operate the alternative system and we have the good will of pet owners in this country. We now need to move much more quickly. The report proposes not a relaxation of our vigilance against rabies but a more viable replacement programme. As such, I hope that the Government will use every endeavour to speed up the implementation of the Kennedy report and the vast majority of its recommendations.

6.51 pm
Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

As is usual at this time in a debate, many of the points that I wished to make have been made already—particularly with regard to animal welfare, smuggling and guide dogs. As I listened to the speech by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), I was forced to cross out large chunks of my speech because I agreed with him almost totally. I disagreed with him in one area, but I shall turn to that in a moment.

Five years ago. we would have had a totally different debate on this subject. Several of the comments made in this debate, particularly those by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), would have been more relevant at that time. Five years ago, I suspect that we would not have proceeded down the route that Kennedy has suggested. However, technology has changed all that.

I recently visited my mother-in-law in Sweden. As I knew that the United Kingdom quarantine system was under review, I asked the Swedes about their quarantine experience. Sweden shares land boundaries and we do not—except in the case of Northern Ireland, and the quarantine system in the Republic of Ireland is in line with our own—but I was interested to know how it had coped with the changes that had been introduced. Five or 10 years ago, there was a great debate in Sweden about whether the system should change. The almost universal view now is that the system is working well and that we should follow the Swedish example. I hope that the Minister will accept that the Swedish system works, and that he will proceed down the same route.

I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham on the question of which countries should be involved in the scheme. I am confused as to why the restriction on islands that are rabies free remains. I believe that the Minister should include in any list of countries to which the scheme applies a number of countries—not just in north America—that have been declared rabies free. It is also important that that list be reviewed regularly to include or exclude certain countries. As the figures cited earlier in the debate show, circumstances change—it is not so long since rabies was advancing through France towards the channel. We must build a regular review mechanism into the system so that countries that are rabies free may be added and those that have problems may be excluded.

I disagree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about compensation for kennel owners. It is important that that issue should not delay the progression of the scheme. The kennel owners have a valid concern, up to a point: they will lose business and the Government must ensure that they have a viable future. However, kennel owners should not be allowed to hold the Government to ransom or to hold up the scheme by expressing fears that were valid five years ago but now no longer apply for reasons that were set out earlier in the debate.

According to the figures, more pets will travel under the new scheme. Therefore, more business may be generated for kennel owners. Like any business when circumstances change, the kennel owners should adapt to altered circumstances. It is right that the Government should help them, but I do not believe that progress should be halted because the kennel owners fear change.

The timing is also important. I welcome the earlier statements about pilot schemes, but I think that at least one scheme should include an airport. The Eurostar and our ports have been mentioned as likely settings for pilot schemes. However, as a child, I was shown around the quarantine kennels at Heathrow and I believe that animals arriving at airports could create a problem. If there are to be pilot schemes, I believe that an airport should be included so that we may head off all possible problems.

Many of my constituents have contacted me to say that they believe that three years is too long, and I echo the comments made earlier in the debate in that regard. It is important that we implement the scheme before the centenary of the introduction of the quarantine regime in 1901.

6.56 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I was brought up to treat dogs with respect and never to forget that, whether working dogs or perfumed poodles, they are animals, not children. I was brought up to respect the laws on rabies and to be very careful of dogs in less fortunate countries. I was brought up to accept all that without thinking. It was easy—because our family did not own a dog.

I did not like dogs. My ankles were nipped by pernicious pekinese and my neighbours had little dogs that yapped for hours and put me off. Glasses of gin and tonic—I do not like whisky and soda, or I would use that line—were sent flying by the tails of labradors and retrievers. I was indoctrinated, prejudiced and thoroughly anti-dog, and it was all very convenient. So what changed?

I begin by welcoming Professor Kennedy's advisory group's report and the Government's response to it. I welcome particularly the Opposition's response to the report because it makes it much easier for me to deliver this speech. I declare not so much an interest in the debate as a motive. I am now a reformed character. I am the proud owner of a springer spaniel called Tigger, whom I would like to take on holiday to France every year. Hundreds of my constituents would also like to take their dogs on holiday to France and elsewhere every year—after all, Salisbury is only an hour from the channel ports.

Furthermore, hundreds of service men and women in my constituency—who serve mostly in the Army—and their families are compulsorily posted to Germany and Cyprus. I am really standing here because about four years ago a young intelligence officer and his wife came to my surgery on a Friday evening to tell me about the rough time they were having. They had acquired a dog while posted to Germany. Shortly thereafter, they were posted back to the United Kingdom for what was supposed to be two years; in fact, it was only six months before they were posted back to Germany again. They could not afford the expense, but they were blowed if they were going to do without their dog.

Far more recently—only a few months ago—I went to Cyprus to visit the British forces and I met many people who had dog problems. It is ridiculous that a rabies-free island like Cyprus should not be excluded from the regulations, especially when the Royal Army Veterinary Corps is on hand at both ends to help and there are secure premises at each end. I urge Ministers to consider a trial involving our troops in Cyprus, because they provide a jolly good example of how things should be done. They care hugely about the issue and they have massive experience. They have an excellent and ingenious dog exchange scheme; dogs can stay in Cyprus and families can adopt a new dog when they are posted there, but there is nothing like being able to take one's own dog to a new posting.

Another motivation comes from a husband-and-wife team in my constituency who have sunk their savings into a well-equipped and well-staffed quarantine kennel. They would face extremely hard times if Government reforms were introduced without there being any financial recompense. The husband, Michael Wykeham, is chairman of the Quarantine Association and I am grateful to him, his wife and their staff for bringing me so carefully and convincingly up to speed on the issue.

I recall one of my visits to those excellent kennels. It was a kennel owner's nightmare: it was February, the temperature was below freezing, all the pipes and everything else were frozen and the local Member of Parliament had turned up to inspect. It could not have been more difficult for the kennel owner, but it was a happy, clean place and the level of care made a great impression on me. At this point, I should like to thank the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who met Michael Wykeham and myself to discuss the issues some time ago. He received us courteously and constructively.

There can be no doubt that rabies is a terrible disease, but science has moved on and the current regulations have been left behind. I do not suppose for a moment that those who strongly argue in favour of there being no change refuse to go on holiday to parts of the world where there might be a rabid animal in the street. Do they refuse to allow their children to go abroad? Do they visit only a handful of certified countries that are guaranteed to be free of rabies? I bet that they do not. The biggest risk that rabies will enter this country arises from the smuggling of pets.

I was a tad concerned by the RSPCA campaign about "relaxing the rules", because I do not see the changes as relaxing the rules; I see them as tightening the effectiveness of the system and reducing the risks of smuggling. Some years ago, when I started on this treadmill, it was hard to persuade the RSPCA of our case. My approach was to stay beside the RSPCA stand at the Conservative party conference and say in a loud voice to anyone who came near, "The RSPCA is promoting cruelty to animals, because they will not agree to change." I was eventually taken to one side, as one is, but that was the start. Now, the RSPCA is wholly on side for all the right reasons.

It was a little harder to persuade the vets, because vets are cautious people. When I first started campaigning on the issue and speaking in the House about it, I got into trouble with the local vets in Salisbury. However, even they have now come around to our point of view—albeit with entirely legitimate concerns.

It has been hard to persuade the public and it will continue to be so. After all, for the past 50 years the taxpayer has been funding extremely expensive and convincing advertising campaigns. I was entirely brainwashed by those wonderful campaigns, which cost a great deal of money out of MAFF's budget. We all have to think about how to re-educate the public.

I always thought it an anachronism that traded cats and dogs were excluded from the regulations. What is good enough for traded cats and dogs should be good enough for the rest of us. If we are talking about raising the standards up to those applying to traded cats and dogs, that appears to meet the case. In fact, I suspect that we shall go further.

What about the kennel owners? There are two issues involving kennel owners, not one. The first is cruelty and bad kennels. There is absolutely no excuse for that, and none of the respectable kennel owners in this country will put up for a second with neighbours who bring their trade into disrepute. Most kennel owners are good kennel owners; they would not be kennel owners if they did not care for animals. The second, separate issue is that of quarantine. It is a great pity to blur those two issues, and the only point in the past couple of years on which I have had any slight disagreement with the campaign has been with people who have muddled them.

At this point, I should like to pay tribute to the campaign of Passports for Pets, which I have supported for some years. I pay particular tribute to Mary Fretwell, who is the prime mover behind the campaign and an indefatigable worker. She knows all about how the regulations affect our professional representatives overseas in the diplomatic service.

I shall address briefly the question of recompense to kennel owners. I deliberately do not use the word "compensation", preferring to use the term "ex gratia payment". As the former Select Committee on Agriculture made clear, there should be some recompense. It seems to me that, the more the state interferes in the private affairs of its citizens and accelerates regulation of our lives, the more the state should accept responsibility if it effectively confiscates private assets that were bought at the request of the state, licensed by the state, regulated by the state and inspected by the state.

We have seen this sort of thing before. We saw it when bovine spongiform encephalopathy led to the entire head deboning industry being closed down overnight by fax. The premises were licensed and inspected by the state, but they received not a penny from the state. The same was true of the buildings and assets of gun makers and gun clubs, which subject has already been mentioned. That legislation marks the only occasion in my 15 years in the House on which I have voted against my own Government on a three-line Whip. Another case concerned the campaign, in which I was a prime mover, for an ex gratia payment settlement for haemophiliacs who had been infected with HIV through the national health service.

The conventional Whitehall arguments are pretty familiar: the Government have never compensated citizens for loss of trade resulting from Government policy. That is not an unreasonable proposition. If the Government introduce a new or increased tax, or impose a regulation for reasons of public health or public interest, I can understand that argument. The European convention on human rights states that the state should not deprive a person of his possessions except in the public interest". In the case of changing quarantine regulations, it seems to me that it would not be the Government's intention to bankrupt kennel owners, but it would be a secondary consequence of a change in public policy. In those circumstances, the Government might say that they were not depriving private citizens of their possessions, but simply prohibiting their use, so the rules governing confiscation did not apply. However, those are weasel words and the Government should show some generosity of spirit. I hope that they will.

As to the three-year implementation period, I can say only that delay will encourage smuggling—it is as simple as that. There is a possibility that the system will be phased in. Earlier, I mentioned that Eurostar and some of the ferry services might be willing to help—indeed, being the first to be ready to transport pets might even introduce a new element of competition between those services. We shall see. In any case, the three-year implementation period is unrealistic.

I would also take issue with the suggestion that all animals should be treated no more than 24 hours before entering Britain with drugs to kill ticks and worms that might spread disease. It is not that I do not approve of preventing the spread of ticks, worms and disease, but that requirement appears to have been bolted on to the rabies debate. I am not quite sure where it comes from, but it seems likely to have originated from those who are determined that there should be no change—so we must try to demolish their arguments. That is a new idea; it should be considered on its merits and I agree that it is right for a different legislative framework. The 24-hour requirement for vaccination against ticks and worms is not enforced under the Balai arrangements for trading cats and dogs; nor is it enforced for horses entering and leaving the country.

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman, who is making a good case, is underestimating the need to control ticks and parasites. A condition of Balai is that the animals never leave their place of origin, so they are already tightly controlled in relation to parasites.

Mr. Key

I recall the Balai regulations. I remain to be convinced that it is right to include such a measure in this system; it might slow down the operation and people might lose confidence in it. Pet owners are the first people to care for the health of their pets. It is the exception for pet owners not to recognise when their pets have an infestation or are thoroughly off colour because of worms. We must consider that measure afresh.

I welcome the proposals and I congratulate the Government and Opposition Front Benchers on their constructive stance. Four years ago, I did not think that it would be only four years before we had a proper debate on this matter; I thought it would be more like 10 years. We are making progress, but let us not wait another three years before something happens.

7.10 pm
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

The system is an idea whose time has come, as the debate has shown. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) said, the proposals would have been much more controversial five years ago and, if we were to wait another five years, they would seem antiquated. I warmly support the proposals. Rather than reiterate the many good points that have been made, I shall focus on a few aspects of the matter.

First, the areas covered by the system should relate not to political associations such as the European Union and the European Economic Area but to a geographical area. There are places within the EU and the EEA—principally Switzerland but also Andorra, San Marino and a few other mini-states—that are not covered by those political associations, not because they are great centres of rabies, which they are not, but because, for political reasons, they decided not to join. If we include Liechtenstein in the system but not Switzerland, enforcement will be almost impossible because the border between the two countries is completely porous. I therefore urge that the area covered should be western Europe—the EU, the EEA, Switzerland and other small states.

I concur with earlier speakers that there is a strong prima facie case that the proposals could include the United States. I suggest that, during the introductory period, the Minister might commit himself more closely to consider the US position, so that it might be possible to add the United States to the scheme in a few years.

On the introductory period, the full version of the report says that Kennedy rejected a phased period because he felt that there might be a legal problem. He envisaged a form of phasing that would allow all British citizens to use the system but make foreigners wait. He pointed out that, first, such a proposal would cover two thirds of the traffic and, secondly, it would be against European Union rules. That is correct and that version of phasing is a non-starter.

I suggest that we begin by including in the scheme what one might consider, in human terms, to be hardship cases, such as people who, for a good reason, usually related to work, are taken abroad for longer than a few weeks. I am referring not to holidaymakers but to Army personnel, business men and diplomats who are posted abroad or who are already abroad and perhaps reaching the end of their period of work.

We should have a pilot project that applies to people who are leaving the country, or who have already been out of the country for one month or longer. That could be introduced possibly even before we have sufficient legislation to justify charging on the basis that those people would have to come through one or two specified ports and airports. That would give us a chance to test out the system and train people. It would be difficult to train people on paper to operate such a system.

If we began with what I estimate to be a minority of the total numbers involved, that would help to smooth implementation of the scheme—we are aware that in Sweden there were teething problems—and deal with hardship cases. Much as I enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), he would accept that going on holiday is not as heart-wrenching as being posted abroad. Holidaymakers might reasonably agree to wait two or three years until the system had been tested and was working smoothly.

Mr. Forth

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the complications in any attempt at a pilot scheme, however defined, would be the availability of approved laboratory and veterinarian facilities for certification? That will determine how the scheme operates, whether it is a pilot scheme or the final dispensation. Does the hon. Gentleman not view that as a problem?

Dr. Palmer

No, because, as the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting, the Kennedy report identifies the certification procedure and selection of the correct vaccine and laboratories as problems that must be solved, and a pilot scheme would reinforce our ability to solve them. To say that, on a certain date, 250,000 people will enter a system and all the laboratories will be set up and the arrangements will be working, is to ask a lot of our powers of organisation. If we begin with a few tens of thousands of people, we have the chance to try out the scheme on a more manageable basis and ensure that the conditions mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman are fulfilled and that implementation is foolproof.

My remaining points reinforce those of earlier speakers. The significance of the 24-hour period in tick vaccination is not clear. If it is deemed essential to introduce that vaccination at the same time as the scheme, there may be physical problems in ensuring that a vet is available on the day that the person is travelling, so perhaps that period could be extended.

I have campaigned on kennel compensation for many years, partly because I have lived abroad and felt the consequences of the present system. Those of us who will benefit from the proposals should accept that there will be a huge reduction in costs for us. I would not begrudge it if, for a transitional period of two or three years, there was an additional charge of £10 or £20 on the fee for the microchip to raise money for a decommissioning fund for affected kennels. I am sure that most people would agree, given the enormous savings that they would make.

My conclusion is the same as that of all the other speakers, with one exception. The scheme is overdue and I praise the Government for taking it up and hope that we can press forward with it as soon as possible.

7.19 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

I am delighted that we have had the opportunity to discuss quarantine measures, although I am not especially delighted to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) because he has ruined my speech. Nevertheless, as I have sat in the Chamber since the start of the debate, I feel that I must make one or two points.

The idea that the nation is gripped by the subject of subsidiarity would be bizarre, but the nation is very interested in quarantine. If hon. Members think that it is not, I suspect that they are out of touch, because this is a nation of animal lovers. My goodness, we had the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South—

Ms Jenny Jones

Wolverhampton, South-West.

Mr. Amess

Thank you. We had the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) telling us that for her printed election address she was photographed with her cat, not her family. I also was happy to be photographed with my dog, but that is where the hon. Lady and I part company; I included my family in the photograph, because they thought that they were at least as good-looking as the dog.

On a serious note, animals are many people's life. Many people genuinely prefer animals to human beings. Some of us can understand why they feel like that. When I go home, my family is not always thrilled to see me, but my dog is. Frankly, that is because it knows that, when I come in, it will be taken for a walk.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said that he had a springer spaniel. The latter is 10 years old, so the Minister of Agriculture and the Parliamentary Secretary should note that he, for one, cannot wait three years until the measure becomes law. I have a black labrador which was bought for one of my children by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). It certainly reflects her formidable personality, and it seems to dominate our house.

Animals are terribly important to many people. In November 1997, I introduced a ten-minute Bill, the Reform of Quarantine Regulations Bill; I take the credit for thereby inspiring the Government to come up with this proposal, and inspiring Professor Kennedy. I introduced the Bill because, having read the speeches of Lord Waddington and Chris Patten, I had been moved by their circumstances. Some might churlishly inquire, "One had been Home Secretary and the other was Secretary of State for the Environment, so why did they do nothing about it at the time?" I shall be kind and say that I suspect that not all members of the Government agreed with the moves that they wanted to make.

I am sure that, when the Minister introduced the debate, he did not wish to imply that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, when in government, were not seriously considering introducing a similar measure; if that was the implication, I believe that it was wrong.

When I introduced the Reform of Quarantine Regulations Bill, I spent a great deal of time talking to the representatives of all manner of organisations. Like all other hon. Members, I have praised Passports for Pets, the RSPCA, the Kennel club and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. I spent much time with all those organisations, learning at first hand about our quarantine laws.

I heard the Minister say that he could not possibly take risks with the nation's health. There can be no suggestion of such risks being taken; we are at one with him on that. The existing measures have worked successfully for a long time. However, after reflecting on the law, we have come to realise that there should be some moderation. Presumably, if one wanted to prevent all road accidents, one would ban cars and coaches. To prevent alcoholism, one would stop everyone drinking. Some measures have achieved their ends, but I doubt that the quarantine laws are among them.

When I was shown around a large quarantine centre I was struck by the fact that, in each compound, owners were kissing and cuddling their animals. It occurred to me that—never mind rabies—if the animals had an infection, the owners would catch the disease and pass it on to people outside. I saw at first hand how ridiculous the arrangements are. Moreover, in one compound there was a dog aged about 16. It was very grey and it did not have any of its required tablets and medicines with it, so it would not last much longer. I believe, therefore, that the existing measures are cruel.

I am greatly encouraged by the debate—especially because I now know that, if I am lucky enough to be drawn in the ballot for a private Member's Bill and seek to re-introduce my 1997 Bill, the Government will support me. Under no circumstances can we afford to wait three years. I do not accept that it will take that long to draft and pass sensible regulations to enable us to treat our animals humanely. I very much look forward to the Government's support if I am successful in next month's ballot.

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

We have had an excellent debate—which is probably not surprising, given the House's ability to discuss issues in real depth when we debate them on the Adjournment. The debate has been useful, and we should all be grateful to the Government for arranging it, although I think that some of us understand the difficulties that the Government are having in filling time while their legislation is in another place.

Mr. Nick Brown

I could fill it on my own.

Mr. Paice

The Minister says that he could fill it on his own. Perhaps he would start with a statement about agriculture. [Laughter.] Promises!

I thank the Minister for the way in which he introduced the debate, and express my pleasure at seeing him in the Chamber. I was not expecting him to be present because I thought that he would be at the place where I was supposed to be tonight, but I am pleased to see him. I also record my thanks and appreciation for the fact that the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) gave me his apologies for not being able to be present for the winding-up speeches.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said, in principle, we support change, but some aspects of the proposals, make us profoundly uneasy—especially their bureaucracy and complexity and, as a consequence, their ability to ensure at least as high a level of protection against rabies as at present.

I do not mean it as a criticism, but this afternoon we have seen how easy it is to get carried away with emotion and to ignore the fundamental factor—the protection of human health and of our animals and wildlife. I realise that, in theory—and as is shown by the New Zealand assessment and the experience in Sweden—the proposed method may be even more effective than quarantine, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, it also matters that the system is possible to implement. Quarantine is very simple, however rough and ready—and perhaps inhumane—it may sometimes seem. My right hon. Friend quoted Mr. Ted Chandler, a vet, who expressed similar views.

I consulted my noble friend and constituent, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the first vet to become President of the Royal Society of Medicine. He has spoken on this subject in the other place many times. He has endorsed my view that change is necessary, and he believes that the proposals of the Kennedy committee represent the way to go, although he has one or two queries, some of which I intend to convey to the House.

The proposed criteria specifically refer to the animal being resident in the EU or the European Economic Area for six months. The Minister dealt with that in so far as a UK citizen takes his animal abroad. However, the matter is slightly less clear with regard to an animal owned by somebody from France, Germany or wherever. How are we to know whether, during that six months, that animal has been to some other country where rabies exists? I hope that the Minister will be able to address that.

The Minister touched on recommendation No.34 and the possible import of exotic diseases. The committee said that it was beyond its resources to examine the issue properly. I hope that the Minister will state categorically that such a study will be carried out before the proposals are introduced; otherwise, we might find a better way of preventing rabies only to let in some other obnoxious disease.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) referred to commercial transactions. I share his view that the present position is inconsistent. I was a parliamentary private secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture when the Balai agreement was drawn up for commercial transactions. I felt then that the pass had effectively been sold and that we would have to move forward on similar grounds for dogs and cats.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk referred to concerns about the efficiency of the system and the availability and universality of the technology involved. Professor Kennedy recommends a central data base, although he says that it is not essential. Surely that is an essential tool, with terminals at every port. How else can fraud be prevented? We cannot be certain that the controls will not be evaded. It may be almost impossible to transfer a chip from one animal to another, but it is not impossible to alter documentation. We must ensure that every eventuality is covered. However much we might like to think otherwise, someone will always want to evade the controls. Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) and many others, I have seen the PetLog system and that seems to be a good example of what could be provided.

I come now to the systems that other countries will be required to use for their nationals entering Britain. Who will issue the health certificates in other countries? How can we ensure that that will be done with the professionalism and rigour that we would expect from our own vets? That brings us to the issue of what veterinary qualifications we recognise in some of the countries whose citizens may be coming here with a dog, hoping that they have the necessary certification.

The Minister said that, if someone comes in with inadequate documentation, the animal will have to go into quarantine, at least until the matter is sorted out. However, there is a difference between inadequate documentation because a form has not been filled in properly or is incomplete, and what appears to be a perfectly valid set of documents, but which have been produced and signed by somebody who is not displaying the rigour necessary if the system is to work.

There is an International Standard Organisation standard for implants which, presumably, would be used by the Government, but, as has been said, other systems are in use throughout Europe. I hope that the Minister will tell the House how interchangeable that technology is and how transferable any information from it would be between other countries if we wish to move in that direction. I understand that there is no standard serological test and no designated laboratory in Europe to do it. The Government must move quickly to set the right standards for those tests and to bring uniformity to the arrangements.

The Minister properly referred to the issue of costs, and he answered one or two interventions, for which we are grateful. I hope that he or the Parliamentary Secretary will confirm that dog owners who do not seek to take their dog abroad will not face any costs as a result of the proposal.

Mr. Nick Brown

indicated assent.

Mr. Paice

I am grateful to the Minister for his confirmation that the cost will fall on those dog and cat owners who take their animals abroad. I assume that that means that the annual costs of running the system will be put into some sort of charge. Will he elaborate on the initial cost of up to £4.4 million according to the report? Will that be annualised into the charge or funded in some other way? Several hon. Members have said that it would be wrong for the taxpayer to be involved and the Chancellor clearly agrees.

I think that all hon. Members who have spoken have referred to the three-year timetable. That has clearly surprised many of the representatives of outside organisations that are involved in the issue, many of whom will be reading the debate. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the matter will be looked at again. That would be welcome. It does seem a long time, but the matter must be got right. At the end of the day, we must ensure that, because that is the most important thing.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that he is always concerned about consensus because if anything is a matter of consensus, it must be wrong. He knows, because we have talked about it many times, that I have a lot of sympathy with that view. The real problem is that such consensus often results in a hurried piece of legislation. That is one reason why I am usually so cynical.

Mr. Morley

That is not this case.

Mr. Paice

Yes, that is why I am prepared to disregard my concern about consensus. This matter is clearly receiving a lot of time and deliberation. We must not rush its introduction, but we must not delay it more than is essential.

I intended to propose a pilot scheme, but the Minister pre-empted me and I am delighted that he did. Nearly every hon. Member has supported the idea of such a scheme. There have been many suggestions and a number of bids from constituencies to have such a pilot—surprise, surprise. I hope that the Minister will now give serious consideration to that prospect.

I come now to the legality of the proposals vis-a-vis Europe. The Minister said that he had been in close contact with the Commission, and we appreciate that. It is what we would expect of him. However, the Minister and his predecessor said, and continue to say, that, with regard to food safety, they are allowed not to check every consignment of food from Europe that comes into this country, but only to make random checks. If so, and that is the line that has been followed for the past 18 months, I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that he will be able to carry out checks on every cat and dog coming into Britain, and that he will not be prevented from doing so by the same legislation that prevents him from inspecting every food consignment.

The Minister nods, and I hope that I can take that as confirmation.

Recommendation No. 27 says that the new system would be transitional while a Europe-wide scheme was developed. I share the views of many hon. Members who believe that the British people will accept the proposed new system, if we can persuade them that it will offer better protection than the present system. However, they will not accept any dilution of that scheme for the sake of European harmonisation, so I hope the Minister can assure us that he will not agree to any modification of our new scheme with the objective of attaining a Europe-wide scheme that is less effective.

Another issue, which was raised by my noble Friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, relates to the veterinary certificates that are currently required to take a dog abroad from this country, in many cases at a cost of £50. We have not been told whether that system is to be maintained or abandoned. Concern is expressed in recommendation No. 26 that, even under the present system, no effort is made to trace the considerable number of import licences that are issued but not used. That requires investigation.

A further question, which may raise one or two eyebrows, concerns animals that fail the test for entry into Britain. The Minister said that such animals would have to go into quarantine while the matter was sorted out, or be re-exported. Some people may not be able to afford the costs involved. I hope that the destruction of those animals will be an option if that is what the owners want. That may not seem a satisfactory solution to many people, and I hope that the option would be exercised only rarely, but we have not heard whether it would be available.

Several hon. Members spoke about the issue of north America, including my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) and for Salisbury. It is unclear whether the definition of north America includes Mexico. The report states that very few animals enter from north America. The assumption is that, if quarantine were ended, the number would remain low.

As a Member of Parliament with a high number of United States service men living in my constituency, I am not sure that that would be the case. If it were easy for service men to bring their animals in, the numbers would rise considerably. Representations have been made to me along those lines.

I hope that the Government will undertake, as they have been urged by several hon. Members, to carry out an assessment of the situation concerning north America, particularly as the New Zealand assessment for the United States gave a lower level of probability of failure to control rabies through a vaccination programme than through six months quarantine. That was reinforced by the Kennedy report, which states that, if animals from any country are satisfactorily identified, vaccinated and blood tested, the risk is reduced, compared to quarantine. We envisage allowing animals from the EU and EEA to come into the country. Neither of those areas is rabies free, so the position with regard to north America is anomalous.

We have had an excellent debate and, as has been observed, a consensus seems to be developing. In this case, that is highly desirable and the Opposition are willing to participate. As we all know, however, there is a huge difference between theory and practice. The proposed system is far more complicated than the present one. There are many questions to be answered before we can give it our whole-hearted support. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will respond to the many concerns that I and others have expressed. If he cannot, I hope that the Government will find the answers and ensure that the problems are resolved before the scheme is introduced. As long as that scheme is effective, the sooner it comes on stream, the better.

7.43 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

We have had a constructive debate on the report. I add my congratulations to Professor Kennedy and his team for the thorough way in which they have undertaken their task, following the brief that they were given by the former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham).

I shall try to deal with various points that were raised by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) in his opening speech for the Opposition and by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) in his closing speech. With regard to enlargement of the European Union, the issue of new member states would have to be addressed by the European Commission, which has its own procedures for controlling rabies. I assume that that would include eradication programmes, which have been extremely successful in northern Europe.

The microchip that is proposed by Professor Kennedy should conform to ISO standard 11784. Much work has been done on microchip technology. One hears stories about microchips moving around animals' bodies. That is somewhat exaggerated—it sounds as though the microchip goes round the bloodstream. There was some migration of the early microchips, but that has been rectified by microchip design, particularly of the surface of the microchip. Even in the case of the early microchips, any movement was within a fairly limited area where the microchip had been inserted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) gave a considered response to the Kennedy report. Representing a major point of entry and having quarantine kennels in his area, he has a substantial interest in the matter. If the Dover harbour board builds new facilities for the animals that will come in, it can recover the costs through harbour charges, as it does at present for any new facility that it provides—for example, for roll on/roll off or passenger ferries.

My hon. Friend, and other hon. Members, asked about the prospect of compensation for quarantine kennel owners. People who run quarantine kennels fear that, if the proposed changes are introduced, they will be severely disadvantaged. I understand that. There are about 80 quarantine premises in Great Britain. Quarantine will, however, survive in some form, even under the recommendations of the Kennedy report. Quarantine kennel owners will not have their land or buildings confiscated. They will still be able to use their facilities. Providing quarantine boarding will still be an option, as will other commercial activities such as normal boarding facilities, which are increasingly being used.

The Kennedy report found that the risk of allowing animals into Britain from some countries without quarantine is simply too great at present. In countries such as India, street rabies is endemic. The advisory group made it clear that animals must go into quarantine if the proper paper work is not available or if there is genuine doubt about compliance with the rules. That was emphasised by my right hon. Friend the Minister. It is also likely that such animals will have to be quarantined for a period.

Dr. Palmer

I seek clarification. I presume that, as now, it will be possible to take the animal away and apply at a later date, and that it would not be a tightening of the present regulations.

Mr. Morley

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend means take the animal out of the country.

Dr. Palmer

indicated assent.

Mr. Morley

That might be an option, because that option exists now in the case of people who bring animals into the country, unaware that they should go into quarantine. Those animals have to be removed from the country. I suspect that the same regulations would apply in those cases. There may be the option of keeping the animals in the country but putting them into quarantine. I think that people would have that choice in those circumstances.

Quarantine kennel owners have asked for compensation if the rules are changed. That request was supported by the Agriculture Select Committee in 1994. However, as some hon. Members have acknowledged, it is a long-established principle that Governments do not compensate commercial operators for loss of business when health controls are introduced or removed. It would be wrong to offer any prospect of departing from that principle. Furthermore, if new legislation impacts on a business, automatic right to compensation does not necessarily follow. For example, the head deboning industry closed down overnight as a result of BSE regulations, and gun shops were affected by the firearms legislation. There are many other such examples.

I acknowledge that quarantine might command wider support if people thought that their pets were as well looked after on quarantine premises as they would be at home. Concerns have been expressed about some quarantine kennels and, although it would be wrong to generalise, there have been many reports of poor treatment. The lack of statutory welfare standards for quarantine premises has been a gaping hole in our controls, but thanks to the excellent work of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who introduced a ten-minute Bill, we now have on the statute book the power to introduce such standards. We intend to make full use of that power and will hold a full public consultation in due course.

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has been consistent in his campaign for change. He is right to say that the quarantine issue is not necessarily one of cost, but the fact that people do not want to be separated from their pets. I understand that. He is also right to say that proper safeguards need to be implemented and that, even once the changes have been introduced, quarantine will continue and welfare standards must still be properly applied.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned time scale. That was echoed by several other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). We agree that the recommended three years is a long time. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, there is a lot of work to do before the changes can be implemented, including introducing primary legislation, which is a delay in itself.

Mr. Key

There has always been a dispute about whether primary legislation is needed. I have been advised that we could simply amend the regulations. I understand that, politically, it might be better to opt for primary legislation but, technically, the changes could be made by amending secondary legislation, so let us not rule that out.

Mr. Morley

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall look at the matter closely because it is always easier and better to introduce changes through secondary rather than primary legislation. We can thus avoid the problem of time slots. However, we are advised that, as charges are involved, and because of the element of compulsion in those charges, primary legislation would be required.

Dr. Palmer

Several hon. Members have mentioned the possibility of a pilot scheme. Would it not be sensible to have no charges under the pilot scheme to allow for the fact that procedures would move more slowly and people would have to put up with various difficulties?

Mr. Morley

I shall come to the idea of pilot schemes in a moment. The problem of introducing pilot schemes without charges is that it is always more difficult to introduce charges later.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire has a long involvement in this issue. He was a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture that made the case for change in the quarantine laws in 1994. Although, at that time, many people were not persuaded by the case for change, the detail that the Select Committee went into changed many people's minds. It certainly influenced me. Although I had always thought that there was a case for change, the Select Committee's detailed arguments made it clear that it was time to look at the matter properly, as Professor Kennedy has, and to assess all the risks. As my hon. Friend said, people must be reassured. I join him in congratulating groups like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Passports for Pets, which have taken a constructive approach to the issue and made sensible and detailed arguments.

The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), who apologised for being unable to be here for the winding-up speeches, made a balanced and constructive speech. He raised the famous case of Whisky and Soda. Although prominent and famous people who have raised the issue in the press have helped to advance the debate, it would be wrong to assume that the proposed changes have been driven by people who happen to be wealthy and powerful. People have been arguing for change for many years. The proposed changes are not a response to those who are fortunate enough to be able to articulate their inconvenience at being unable to bring their dogs back from Hong Kong. The issue is about the concerns of service families, diplomats and people who work and live abroad—those who simply do not want to be parted from their pets.

The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West and my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) spoke of guide dogs. Professor Kennedy considered that matter, but did not make guide dogs a special exception because they are as vulnerable to rabies as any other dog. However, we have discussed pilot schemes and ways to implement the change. We are in a consultation period, so we can consider all the issues carefully. There is certainly an argument for considering guide dogs in any pilot scheme, so long as they comply with the recommendations put forward by Professor Kennedy.

I was interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West about the impact of separating people from their animals. Studies show that separation can be detrimental to both animal and owner. I understand how important the issue is to my hon. Friend, given that she was photographed with her cat for her election address. I know of a prospective parliamentary candidate who was photographed with a donkey for his election address. He was not successful in his campaign, so those matters must be considered carefully. I have two cats, one of which was rescued. One is called Boris—I shall not say why he was named after Boris Yeltsin, but he is fairly laid back. The only stress that he would suffer from separation would be separation from his lunch.

Just as we were having a constructive, consensual discussion, along came the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) who put a spanner in the works. I hope that his mother-in-law will not have to look for a new excuse for not visiting him if the quarantine laws are changed, given some of his attitudes. It appears that the Euro-sceptic poison in the Tory party bloodstream runs very deep. The proposal for quarantine reform is not some kind of Euro-federalist plot. It is a little bit more constructive than that.

I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman the serious point that he made: we are not prepared to take risks with this country's rabies-free status. We are all agreed on that, one of the important points which Professor Kennedy had to consider. As a number of hon. Members said, public confidence must be maintained when any change to the law is made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough was absolutely right about cost. I make it clear that the cost of changes will be based on full cost recovery for those who use the service, which is only right and proper, and there would be a considerable saving on the current cost of quarantine. He also mentioned north America where, as Professor Kennedy recognised, rabies is endemic. I should make it clear that we do not include Mexico in north America in geographical terms.

Mr. Paice

Someone did.

Mr. Morley

I do not know who, but that person is not from the Labour party. We understand geography quite well enough not to include Mexico in north America. We recognise, as did Professor Kennedy, that standards of veterinary and animal care in north America are high, so there is a case to consider. Again, that can be done as part of the consultation.

Mr. Reed

This is a second bite of the cherry, but I reiterate that, because of the system in the United States, the particular guide dog is already chipped, has a health certificate and would meet the requirements in the Kennedy report. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that north America, and those states that are already covered, have a strong case for being in the first wave?

Mr. Morley

There is a case, and Professor Kennedy acknowledged that in his report. Further consideration will be given to that as part of the process.

Mr. Paice

The Labour party may know that Mexico is not part of north America, but the Americans clearly do not, given that the North American Free Trade Agreement includes Mexico.

The Minister has answered questions about running costs, but I mentioned set-up costs, which will be £4.4 million. Can he shed any light on where the funding will come from?

Mr. Morley

That is one of the issues that we shall have to consider as part of the response to Professor Kennedy. It is possible, for example, that the set-up costs could be recovered over time, as part of the overall charging regime. We can consider that issue, and I do not think that it is a particular problem.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) put forward a good argument about the advantages of the changes. It is worth emphasising that the regulations will not be weakened; in many ways, they, and the measures that protect our country from rabies, could be strengthened. I also accept his arguments on the progress that has been made on eradicating fox rabies. A scheme in northern Europe, involving dropping bait from helicopters, has been successful and should be extended to eastern Europe, where fox rabies is concentrated at present.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned dog registration, which is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, not the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to consider. He made a persuasive case for dog registration, and those arguments will be considered in due course.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) was right to refer to the atmosphere of the debate, because we would not have had such a calm and rational discussion about changing the quarantine regulations a few years ago. There have been changes in technology and, as he mentioned, we have the experience of Sweden, which has changed its quarantine control regulations.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) made a good case, and I understand his desire to take Tigger on holiday in its advancing years. I should point out to him, however, that there will be a charge for taking animals on holiday, and people will have to weigh that up. This is not simply a matter of taking the dog across the channel for the day on a shopping trip; there will be a charge, and strict regulations to ensure that our rabies-free status is not undermined.

I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Salisbury about a trial in Cyprus. In 1994, when I spoke from the Opposition Benches, I suggested to the then Government that a trial in Cyprus would not be a bad idea because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is rabies free and there would be minimal risk. We have the Kennedy recommendations, and we could perhaps consider the option of a pilot scheme on an even larger scale. We must consider the issues, and some interesting ideas have been put forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) made some interesting and thoughtful suggestions on trial areas, based on the amount of time that people stay out of the country. We want to consult widely on the Kennedy report, and those issues can be considered and evaluated so that we can decide what is the best way to implement the recommendations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe also mentioned Switzerland and mini-states. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union or of the European Economic Area, but, nevertheless, its role can be considered within the evaluation. Some of the mini-states that he mentioned are part of the EEA, along with countries such as Norway and Iceland. They would be embraced within the Kennedy recommendations.

I remember the ten-minute Bill of the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), although it would need a fair bit of redrafting in response to the Kennedy report. Introducing that measure was a useful contribution to the debate, although I do not want to underestimate the great deal of work and preparation that has to be done, even in respect of dealing with the report's recommendations. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has made it clear that we are sympathetic to the recommendations, and we shall approach them in that light.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire expressed concern about regulation, which I understand. Regulation can be a problem and can be bureaucratic, but he would agree that, because the measures represent a major change, especially in this country's psyche on rabies and rabies control, they must be effective and rational. They must also be as easy to understand as possible, and we must explain them to educate the public about what the changes will mean and what pet owners will have to do to comply. The measures have to be in place to protect the interests of this country.

Mr. Paice

I was expressing doubt, not about the regulations, but about being able to manage and enforce them properly. At least we have a simple system at present; the proposals are far more complex, and getting it right will be that much more difficult, which is the point that the Minister has made.

Mr. Morley

There is no disagreement between us on that point. These are complicated matters, but we must not compromise our rabies-free status. We have to address the issue of delivering the changes as coherently as possible.

I can confirm to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that the cost of any changes in quarantine regulations will fall only on those who take animals out of, or bring them into, the country, not on pet owners who do not want to be involved in the scheme. He also mentioned the EU, with which we have to work closely because of single market regulations and the Balai directive, which is already in place.

We shall consult closely with the European Union. I emphasise that our top priority is to ensure our rabies-free status. The measures that we put in place must be tailored for our country and our circumstances. We understand that, and we think that that issue has been addressed by the Kennedy report.

Other issues have been raised, and questions have been asked about the details of how this process will work. They will be addressed during this consultation period and when the Government give their formal response to the Kennedy report. People will make representations and give their views on how it will work in practice.

As there is wide consensus in the country, we are now able to reform our quarantine laws without undermining the original intention of protecting our rabies-free status. We can protect people's health and welfare through regulations that will allow freedom of movement for animals.

That is a challenge, but Professor Kennedy has provided a framework. With good will and a rational approach by the various interest groups—welfare groups, veterinary organisations and the public—the time is right to think about a change. I believe that this change will be for the better and not for the worse, and will enhance quarantine control and protect against associated health risks.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.