HL Deb 07 March 1978 vol 389 cc685-7

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government under what authority the West Midlands County Council embarked on an antirabies exercise in the area of Halesowen in severe weather conditions on 14th-15th February by the rounding up, impounding and threatened destruction of unclaimed dogs and the indiscriminate release of impounded cats in the areas from which they were taken; what is the statutory authority for public expenditure for this purpose; what was the estimated cost of the exercise; and whether similar rehearsals are to take place elsewhere.


My Lords, the West Midlands County Council took its own decision to test, on 13th and 14th February, its rabies contingency plans drawn up to meet its responsibilities under the Rabies (Control) Order 1974. The estimated cost of £3,500 was authorised by the Council's Finance Committee, and is defrayed as expenses for special county purposes under Section 69 of the Diseases of Animals Act 1950. The seizure of dogs was carried out in conjunction with the police under the provisions of the Dogs Act 1906. Cats were trapped only on private property with the property owner's consent.

The cost and details of the exercise are mainly matters for the council, which is to be congratulated on taking this initiative, and its exercise report will be of considerable value nationally. I am not aware of firm plans at present for similar exercises elsewhere, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would certainly give its encouragement and cooperation to any local authority which proposed to stage one.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that if it is important to hold this test exercise in one locality, it may be equally important to hold exercises in others? In those circumstances, would it not be a good thing if those concerned consulted fully organisations representing the interests of our canine friends in the community, and did not confine their contact only to the RSPCA, of whose work I have great admiration and of which I happen to be a vice-president? Is my noble friend aware that this isolated instance gives rise to questions which could be better solved if there was wider consultation on the detail of them?


My Lords, I must tell my noble friend that there is wide consultation, which is co-ordinated by the Ministry. There were liaison representatives from Hereford and Worcester present in the control centre, and I understand that an observer was also present from the neighbouring county of Warwickshire. But it was decided to keep the number of observers down to the minimum. With regard to the animal welfare societies, in addition to the police in the pound there was a veterinary surgeon in attendance throughout the exercise. RSPCA officers were also present, as were observers from other animal welfare bodies.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether the Government intend to publish the results of the lessons learned during this exercise and, if so, when?


My Lords, that is a very useful suggestion which will certainly be considered.


My Lords, can my noble friend assure us that there is adequate public notice given in the locality reasonably well beforehand, so that people can lock up their dogs and other animals, rather than find them suddenly being rounded up?


My Lords, of course there is no notice when there is a rabies outbreak. But, with regard to this exercise, wide publicity was given through the media prior to the exercise, and leaflets were distributed to libraries and other public buildings in the area, warning pet owners that dogs permitted to stray were liable to seizure and informing them how to reclaim impounded dogs.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I attended this exercise and that, for a first attempt, it set up a very fine basic organisation for any urban area which wanted to organise something before an outbreak? Is the noble Lord further aware that there was no attempt to collect dogs, except on the second day when 25 dogs were collected? Furthermore, there was vast publicity, both nationally and locally, which went on for three days and could not be faulted. Finally, would the noble Lord agree that for 25 dogs to be collected in two hours, fifty minutes shows an extremely irresponsible attitude by pet owners?


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the interest that he has taken in this exercise, and for what he has said. The reason why dogs were not taken in on the first day was that that day was used for briefing those taking part. The second day was devoted to the exercise itself. I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble Lord about the number of dogs taken in. There are over 3,500 dogs licensed in the area and I believe that there is a considerable number—probably double—still unlicensed. Of that number, only 25 were found to be strays by the time the exercise took place, which I think is encouraging and shows that the message got across.

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