HL Deb 13 May 1974 vol 351 cc784-97

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. The main objective of this Bill is to provide necessary powers for the effective handling of rabies outbreaks outside quarantine should they occur. I should say first that this Bill is worded in exactly the same terms as that which had been considered by the House and sent to another place just before the last Parliament was dissolved. I do not, therefore, propose to take up more time than necessary in explaining its provisions and the background to them. Rabies is a disease that has always terrified man, as it causes human death of the most unpleasant' kind. It i4 of course a virus disease normally transmitted by a bite from an infected animal. Once the disease has developed, it is almost invariably fatal. It is not only death and the way of dying that is frightening; while treatment immediately after a bite may prevent the development of the disease, it involves a long series of unpleasant injections with possible side effects. This treatment, coupled with an incubation period which may be many months, leaves the potential victim subject to a long period of anguish and discomfort.

Apart from three cases—I think that there were two in dogs and one in a monkey during the last ten years—Great Britain has. I am thankful to say, been free of rabies outside quarantine since 1922. But we cannot afford to be complacent about this matter. Rabies is endemic in wild life in most countries of the world. Since the end of the last world war, it has spread across much of Europe from the East, crossing the Rhine and reaching Northern France in the last few years. Recorded cases in animals in France in 1973 were over 2,000, which is more than double the level in 1972. Comparable figures for 1974 indicate that the incidence is still increasing. Although the principal carrier in France and Europe is the fox, rabies has spread to dogs, cats, and other domestic and farm animals, and it is these which present the major contact danger to man. The French authorities have estimated that wild life rabies carried by foxes could be close to the Channel coast by 1980; the current rate of spread indicates that this could be even earlier.

It was against this threat that the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland appointed in 1970 a Committee of Inquiry, under the chairmanship of Mr. Ronald Waterhouse, Q.C., to review the policy and precautions against rabies in Great Britain and to make recommendations. The Committee did an invaluable job. Their recommendations fell broadly into two groups. First, they recommended improved safeguards against the risk of entry of the disc ase into the country; and, secondly, recognising that total security is not possible, the Committee made recommendations regarding the methods needed to control an outbreak, particularly in wild life. With few exceptions, the Committee's proposals for improved entry controls have been put into effect quarantine restrictions have been applied to a much wider range of mammals; conditions and controls for quarantine premises and carriers of quarantine animals have been tightened. This Bill deals primarily with the second group of measures concerning control of outbreaks, and I should like now briefly to outline what these are. The Bill is closely linked to the Diseases of Animals Act 1950 and covers matters where that legislation, drafted mainly with farm animals in mind, does not meet the needs of the situation that might occur in an outbreak of rabies among wildlife on the continental pattern. Each clause of the Bill supplements the Order-making powers in the 1950 Act and will require Orders to be made under that Act as extended by the powers in this Bill.

Clauses 1, 2 and 4 contain the main additional provisions needed to deal with outbreaks. Clearly, as with any other disease, rapid detection, isolation and control are the keynotes. Clause 1 enables infected areas to be declared and the destruction by all possible means within these areas, of foxes—the principal carrier from continental experience—and other wild animals not in captivity. It also prescribes powers of entry to land in order to carry out destruction and to take other measures to control the movement of wild animals and the disposal of carcases. The need to isolate and eradicate an outbreak quickly would call for drastic measures against foxes and, if any other species showed a similar capacity to spread the disease, against them as well.

Three methods of destruction were recommended by the Waterhouse Committee. These were, first, gassing; secondly, the use of poisoned baits, and then, exceptionally, trapping. Gassing is perhaps the least objectionable of these methods but it has serious limitations: it can be used successfully only for a relatively short period of the year; that is, during the spring when vixens and cubs are in their earths, and even then it is not suitable for every type of area. It seems probable, therefore, that we should have to rely mainly on poisoned baits which would, of course, be used with appropriate safeguards to reduce the dangers. There is also a fairly remote possibility that gin traps might have to be used; for example, in certain mountainous areas where other methods would not be suitable. But, again, if this became necessary such traps would be used only as a last resort with other safeguards. I agree that none of these methods is welcome, but I am sure noble Lords will recognise that the alternative to controlling an outbreak in the most effective way might be endemic rabies and damage and suffering on a much wider scale than the eradication measures would involve.

Clause 2 complements Clause 1 by providing powers for dealing with domestic animals, either confined or stray, and wild species held in captivity; for example, in zoos and safari parks. It provides for the extension of current powers for controlling such domestic and captive animals by providing scope for Orders to be made requiring their confinement, control and vaccination. The clause also enables an Order to provide for the sub-division of the infected areas into zones, so that all these general provisions can be applied with flexibility and discretion.

Clause 4 is a relatively minor provision. Present powers require notification of rabies, or suspected rabies, by the owner of the animal concerned. Since an outbreak might well concern wildlife, this clause closes the potential loophole by requiring any person to report suspected rabies in any animal. Prompt notification would be a key factor in the successful control of an outbreak. The remaining clauses. Clauses 3, 5 and 6, seek to strengthen further our preventive measures against the risk of the disease being imported into Great Britain.

Clause 3 is concerned mainly with rabies virus. Animals exposed to rabies virus in research institutes are not currently subject to statutory controls similar to those which apply to imported rabies-susceptible animals. Even though such institutes are aware of the hazards involved and already take precautions in the handling of materials, it is anomalous that animals posing a clear rabies risk should fall outside the scope of rabies controls. Power is sought under Clause 3 to enable us to control the keeping and importation of virus and to require suitable quarantine arrangements to be applied to animals used in experimental work involving rabies virus. We are confident that these controls can be applied without inhibiting necessary research work.

Clauses 5 and 6 are measures to help deal with the problem of illegal landings. In previous discussions in this House, it was recognised that unlicensed landings of animals represented a major threat to our rabies security whether these involved deliberate smuggling or claimed ignorance of the law. No quarantine accommodation or authorised transport has been arranged in advance for such animals, and while attempts are being made to make necessary arrangements, either to re-export or direct them to quarantine, the animals represent a security hazard. Moreover, it may be impossible to make satisfactory arrangements and humane destruction may become the only secure course of action. Existing legislation, however, does not empower the authorities to destroy such animals without the owner's consent. Clause 5, therefore, provides the power to destroy illegally landed animals without the owner's consent and gives the authorities the scope they need to deal with these difficult cases.

Clause 6 was introduced following Third Reading in this House of the previous Rabies Bill, in response to a good deal of disquiet expressed by certain noble Lords about the seriousness of offences against rabies importation controls and the seemingly inadequacy of available penalties and the punishment imposed on offenders. The present maximum penalty for such offences—perhaps I may remind your Lordships—under the Diseases of Animals Act 1950 is a fine of £400. The average fine imposed has been much below this level and substantially less than the cost of quarantine that the smuggler could save in successfully carrying out this anti-social and potentially dangerous evasion of the law. Therefore, Clause 6 will enable Ministers to declare the more serious offences under rabies control optionally indictable. The authorities would then have, as an alternative to summary trial by magistrates, the option of prosecuting on indictment when the defendant would face trial by jury and, if convicted, up to a year's imprisonment, or an unlimited fine, or both. I think noble Lords will agree that this provision will give us a substantial, realistic penalty for such offences.

My Lords, I have tried to be brief, because the measures proposed in this Bill have been previously discussed and welcomed by all sides of the House. I should add that the Waterhouse Report, upon which most of these proposals are based, was also welcomed by those directly concerned with various aspects of the proposals. In formulating the detailed Orders needed to implement the powers of the Bill the Government will have further consultations. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Strabolgi.)

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for having introduced this Bill and I can assure him that I will support it, as indeed I am sure that everyone else will, because it is identical to the Bill which we had in the previous Parliament and which I had the privilege of looking after when it was in your Lordships' House. Rabies is a disease which we in this country fortunately do not know very much about as individuals. By that I do not mean that we do not know what the effect is, but fortunately we do not see it very much and we tend to forget about it, whereas the noble Lord said that it is spreading across Europe at a terrific rate.

I believe that the Government are wholly right in asking Parliament to approve the Bill and to give them the powers which they consider necessary should the disease get nearer our shores. I remember the noble Lord the Leader of the House, when he was on these Benches, saying on Second Reading how he had seen somebody suffering from the disease and how, once you had seen that, you never forget it. I think it is a fact that anyone who contracts the disease in fact never recovers from it. That is a distinction between those who are bitten by a rabid animal as opposed to those who, after having been bitten, contract the disease. It is a foul disease and anything that can be done to keep this country free of it is welcome.

My Lords, although the Bill is identical to the Bill which we had during the last Parliament, it is different in one respect; that is, that it is not identical to the one to which we gave a Second Reading. As a result of the pressure which the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, referred to from his noble friend Lord Shepherd—it was considerable pressure and I pay tribute to it—Clause 6 was inserted. Everyone knows that the penalties which courts put on offenders for smuggling in animals is, by general consensus, far too low. The limits which the courts were entitled to put was much higher but they never carried it out. This was the point which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, pressed strongly and it was a question with which my noble friend Lord Hailsham, as Lord Chancellor, was concerned. I know that it incorporated problems by making this an optionally indictable offence; I suspect there were problems of precedent and so on. Nevertheless, those problems were overcome and the clause was inserted in the Bill and I congratulate and pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for his admirable persistence, because I think that it immeasurably strengthened the Bill.

My Lords, I can only hope that, now that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, finds himself on the other side of the House, he will be equally happy and willing to reciprocate by incorporating into Bills put forward by the Government any Amendments pressed from this side of the House, especially those that are pressed vigorously. I welcome the Bill and hope that it will have the approval of your Lordships, because although it may never have to be used its provisions are essentially very desirable.

5.44 p.m.


My Lords, I should like also to thank the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi for introducing the Bill once more to us. We had a full debate on it last year and I do not propose now to make a long speech. I should however like to mention some of the points which I thought were important when we discussed the Bill previously. The first point is that there has been a certain amount of pressure from time to time that the period of quarantine should be relaxed. I hope that the Government are not thinking of doing that because it would be disastrous. It is said that vaccination is very successful now. I think that that is probably true; it is a successful preventive, but it is not 100 per cent. successful. Indeed, in one of the cases where a rabid dog appeared in this country in, I think, Newmarket in 1970, it was supposed to have been vaccinated three times before its entry. It was quarantined for six months and it developed rabies about a month after it came out of quarantine. So although one should encourage vaccination it should not be regarded as a complete safeguard.

The other point I am pleased about is the question of deterrent. There is sufficient body of feeling about that people who bring animals improperly into this country and get caught should be fined a great deal, and that they should go to prison at the same time. Although it is not an important point, I should like to ensure, in addition, that the animals they bring in are destroyed—not may be destroyed. I do not seek that because I wish to be unkind to the animals concerned, but because such action would have a bigger deterrent if some foolish person who wished to import a pet knew that if he was caught that he would be fined not only a big sum but that his pet would be killed. That is all I wish to say about the Bill at present. I welcome it and hope that your Lordships will give it a comfortable passage.

5.47 p.m.


My Lords, may I join with other noble Lords in welcoming the Bill. It is a subject which, when nothing is happening, tends to fade from the public mind. There are so many people now going to Europe that the temptation to return with animals, and the willingness to smuggle them in, becomes very great. I do not think the public realise the horrors which can come from an outbreak of rabies. I was privileged to see in Westminster Hall the other day a most stark and brutal film which brings home to everybody the horrors of this terrible disease. I should like that film to be shown as widely as possible to as many people as possible. Although it is brutal and beastly, I should welcome it if it were shown nationwide on television in order to bring home to the public the appalling results of an outbreak of rabies. I have only one lingering doubt about the Bill, which the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has introduced, and that is still about the omission of Northern Ireland. I feel that the control of animals coming from Northern Ireland is still too light and if through ill chance, the disease spread there it would be difficult to control it. The Waterhouse Committee made a number of recommendations. I was most pleased to hear the noble Lord say that most of these had been carried out. Although I know it is not directly connected with the Bill, I ask him whether the recommendations on individual runs for dogs in quarantine have yet been completely enforced and whether the restrictions on animals used in circuses are, in fact, completely tight? There was a period when I know from experience that the restrictions were extremely loose.

The other matter, which I hope the noble Lord can assure us about, is the by-chance importation of animals on these multiple cross-channel ferries carrying heavy vehicles. There may be no intention of importing a wild animal but, as rabies can be borne by any wild or warm-blooded animal, I hope the Government are satisfied that their checks in this regard are quite sufficient. My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for presenting this Bill again. It is one which is greatly needed.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' approval and unannounced, may I make a short but sad speech? I have certain information about the subject which is difficult to mention. I do not mean that I have personally suffered from rabies, though noble Lords may well think so, but there was an inquiry by Mr. Arthur Koestler twelve or thirteen years ago which recommended a change in the law. The late Lord Silkin and I took the matter up and under a different Government we got so far as to persuade the Under-Secretary to declare a rabies-free customs union for eleven countries. This was not announced, because the plan was suddenly stopped by the import into Holland—which was one of the rabies-free countries—of a mad dog which did infinite harm, and also, later on, into Italy, where even greater harm was done. So Lord Silkin and I reluctantly gave up the plan. We knew that we were right to do so and, personally, I do not expect to see any such legislation—at any rate in my lifetime—re-introduced.

There are one or two questions which I should like to ask the Minister and to which he may be able to give satisfactory answers. The Bill speaks of "mammals". Does that include bats? I believe that bats are mammals, but I should like to make sure of this point because there was a tremendous epidemic in Detroit 30 or 40 years ago and it was proved that the infection had been brought in by bats. How the Government propose to remove that danger I cannot guess—bats are hard to trace. The second point about which I should like to ask the noble Lord relates to Clause 3, which speaks of the banning of the importation of certain vaccines, notably, I should imagine, one which has been proved 100 per cent. efficient in the laboratory and 99.9 per cent. in the field, though your Lordships may well think that that is not good enough. I wonder what it is that the Minister had in mind when he talked about the importation of anti-rabies drugs. I should have thought that the more they were imported the less the danger, but perhaps the Minister will explain.

Apart from that I have absolutely nothing to say, except that I think it is a very sad thing that it should be so. Of course, the amount of money lost to the Revenue from owners of dogs who might otherwise have brought them from abroad—notably American ladies, who love dogs and like to have them always—must be enormous. But I realise the point behind the Bill and it has my wholehearted approval.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, I should simply like to say, as a former Minister of Agriculture, that it is impossible to exaggerate the seriousness of this disease. I remember many cases of kindly, humane people in my day who urged me towards relaxation of the penalties with the most kindly intentions. But if they had known the disease, I do not believe they would have done so. I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord de Clifford said just now. If a film would help to educate people, it would be a very good thing indeed.

In any case, I think that one of the ways in which one can emphasise to the people involved the importance of this matter is through the sternness of the penalties involved. Therefore, my Lords, I am entirely in support of the Bill. I think it very timely and very necessary indeed, and I hope that it will be given a fair wind at every stage.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, I should just like to say a brief word in support of the Bill and to thank the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for having introduced it. I agreed with him when he said that our long freedom from rabies is no cause for complacency, because now that we are—at any rate nominally—a part of Europe, our contact with the gradually spreading wave of rabies is even closer. The noble Lord named the fox as one of the chief spreaders of the disease, and this makes the need for care even greater. I live in what might be called a suburban area. It is just outside the borders of London and foxes are very frequently seen there. In fact, we have twice had one inside our own garden and they are coming up towards human habitation more and more; and, of course, there are dogs and cats galore, though I do not know whether cats suffer from this disease. In any case, there are many dogs and, if a fox were to attack a dog, who knows what might be the result?

The noble Lord made one other point on which I should like to comment when he was talking about the possible preventives. He said that we might have to go back to the gin trap. I sincerely hope that we shall not have to do so. The gin trap has been outlawed for very right reasons, and there are other traps in existence which could be very effective. At the time when the gin trap was banned, the R.S.P.C.A. held a competition for the design of a trap which would prove effective in its place, and I believe that a very effective one was produced. Also, it is not impossible, as is commonly supposed, for a really good marksman to shoot a fox. It takes some doing, but a really good shot can do it and that would be more merciful than using gin traps, which, of course, can injure animals other than foxes. Apart from those few remarks, I welcome the Bill very much.

5.59 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords for the welcome which they have given to the Bill. I should like to thank the noble. Earl, Lord Ferrers, particularly, the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, from the Liberal Front Bench, the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, with all his great experience, and other noble Lords from all sides of the House for the welcome which they have given to the Bill. I am also glad that noble Lords agree that the previous penalties were for the most part too low.

I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, that the period of quarantine will certainly not be relaxed. He mentioned the case of a rabid clog developing rabies one month after quarantine. This was considered by the Waterhouse Committee. The Report of the Committee described how a dog had developed rabies nine months after the end of the period; but the Committee considered that this was a very unusual case and recommended, on the whole, that the six-month period should be retained. Of course, my Lords, one also has to balance this with the great sadness and disappointment caused to owners, and indeed also to the dog, if the poor animal is to be kept separated from them for long periods. I think there is probably a risk that they might lose much of the affection, and so on, if the period is longer than six months.

The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, mentioned an interesting film that was shown in Westminster Hall. I am afraid I did not see the film, but I understand that it was made in France. We certainly will consider using films of this kind for advertising to the general public the dangers of importing animals without licence and trying to smuggle them through. As I say, I believe the film which the noble Lord mentioned was made in France, and while it was a very good film it was directed mainly at specialised audiences—veterinary audiences, and so on—and we think it is probably rather too specialised for general consumption. But we are certainly looking into this and other ways and means of informing the public that this is a very dangerous and irresponsible thing to do. There are many other channels, of course, through which this can be done, such as putting up fairly prominent notices at Customs points, informing people when they go abroad, as well as trying to make some representations to the troops, including the Army of the Rhine, through the Secretary of State and through the commanding officers. In that way they, too, will be aware of the importance of sticking to the regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, asked whether the proposals about quarantine kennels and quarters were being implemented. I am happy to say that we can give him this assurance. Most of the Waterhouse recommendations have been implemented except those relating to communal runs. In new kennels these are being implemented at once, but in respect of older kennels we are proposing to give a few years' notice. That is about the only recommendation that has not been implemented. Also, in future it will be essential for an owner to see his dog only in the compartment, and the dog will no longer be allowed to contact the owner outside the cage. The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, mentioned zoo animals. I can confirm that the controls have been strengthened, as recommended by Waterhouse. The noble Lord then asked about Northern Ireland and controls there, and said that he thought there were dangers that animals might slip in. I am surprised he said this, because it has been our experience that Northern Ireland, which of course has not had rabies, is extremely stringent and very strict about the powers, and is very well aware of this problem. So I think the possible dangers there are exaggerated.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us—I have not any idea what the answer is—whether the Eire Government have strict controls in this respect? I rather fancy they have.


Yes, my Lords; I understand the Government of the Republic are very well aware of this problem and have controls which are at least as strict as ours. The noble Lord also mentioned cross-Channel ferries. Of course he is quite right in saying there is a danger here, but we are doing our very best to strengthen supervision at the ports and also to increase portal veterinary officers, both qualified and non-qualified, who carry out the initial searching, so that any loophole will be stopped up.

The noble Earl, Lord Arran, mentioned the mad dog which was introduced into Holland. This, of course, pinpoints what can happen with rabies and how it is gradually spreading across Europe. I can confirm to him that bats are mammals. With regard to Clause 3 and the vaccine, I will, if I may, write to him about this as I should like to go into it a little more carefully. I am very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, for his support. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, mentioned the fox. At present the fox is the particular culprit of rabies. I do not say that always in past history it has been the fox, but the fox is the animal responsible for the rabies outbreak in Europe and for its spread, and it is thought that the fox will pose the danger in this country as well. I note what the noble Lord said about gin traps. As I said in my opening speech, the Government will introduce them with the greatest reluctance, and, here again, only in areas where it is not possible to resort to gassing. These are mainly mountainous areas, where the foxes, instead of using earths, use cairns, where gassing is not practical. There it may be necessary some times, I regret to say, to use the gin trap. But these traps will be used only as a last resort, and here again all precautions will be taken to see that they are inspected frequently.

My Lords, I hope I have answered all the questions that noble Lords have asked me, but if there is anything that I have not covered I shall be happy to write about it in more detail to the noble Lord concerned. In the meantime, my Lords, I trust your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.