HL Deb 06 May 1981 vol 420 cc134-6

2.47 p.m.

Lord de Clifford

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 what action has been taken, when customs officers go on strike, to ensure that no animal capable of being a carrier of rabies enters the country.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Mansfield)

My Lords, all reasonable measures within the resources available are taken by customs management to ensure compliance with the rules governing the importation of animals which are subject to rabies control. Customs checks are, of course, only one of the safeguards.

Lord de Clifford

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply, but it would be interesting to know what are the other safeguards because the customs men are withdrawing their labour. What are the other safeguards?—which is the basis of my Question.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, they are basically threefold. In the first place, police, local authorities and local organisations have been asked to exercise special vigilance and, of course, customs officers and local government officials have the same powers of seizure as police officers. Secondly, there is luckily considerable public awareness in the reporting of suspicious cases. Thirdly, there are standard requirements that airlines and shipping companies do not accept animals without appropriate documentation.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that some months ago, according to press reports, a large sheepdog was brought through customs in a car and it was later spotted in London only through the initiative of a police officer because he saw it sitting in a car with a Continental number plate; and the people concerned were charged? What steps are being taken to prevent a recurrence?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I am not personally aware of the details of this shaggy dog story. I must say to the noble Lord that so far as the Customs and Excise are concerned not all officers are taking part in industrial action, but where they have done so Customs and Excise management have informed the police and other authorities of the situation so that they could react accordingly. Furthermore, much of the industrial action has consisted of working to rule, which in some respects can lead to enhanced rather than reduced checking.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does what the Minister has said mean that he is absolutely satisfied that the same standard of vigilance is kept today as was kept before industrial action was taken? Is he satisfied that all the procedures which successive Governments have followed under the Rabies Act are being followed?—procedures which have been successful in keeping this dreadful disease from this country thus far. Further, is he able to give us any statistics as to the number of dogs in quarantine now and the number before? Would that lead us to have confidence that the right degree of vigilance is being maintained?

The Earl of Mansfield

No, my Lords; of course, no one can be absolutely satisfied when a very important arm of our defences as regards the importation of animals is in dispute. I do not have the statistics for animals in quarantine because they are outside the terms of this Question. But I have looked up the general figures relating to the seizures of dogs and other small animals in the first quarter of 1981 as opposed to the first quarter of 1980, and the figures are remarkably similar. Luckily, the high season, if I may so call it, for animal traffic has not yet arrived and the experience is that people bringing in domestic pets and so on are less likely to pose a risk of import control evasion than professional smugglers dealing in other items.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, can the noble Earl give us any more precise information about the customs officers who are not going on strike?—as many of us will regard this as very welcome information.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot be more specific because the industrial action takes place on a highly localised basis from time to time, so that such information does not lend itself to figures.