HL Deb 10 January 1995 vol 560 cc81-4

2.45 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering replacing the quarantine requirement for cats and dogs entering the United Kingdom from other European Union states with a system of vaccination and unambiguous identification.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, the Government share the concern of the Agriculture Select Committee in another place. They would never support a change which would increase the likelihood of rabies entering the United Kingdom. The question of whether any other arrangements can offer the same protection as quarantine or better is essentially technical which the Government will need to consider carefully. The onus is on those recommending change to demonstrate that it offers at least as good a protection as quarantine, which has served us well.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that, with tried and tested alternatives, we should not keep pets locked up for six months in cold, damp and noisy cells? Is he aware of the changes in Sweden and Norway where, for the first seven months after their introduction, vaccination and identification rather than quarantine have been an outstanding success?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I have already said, quarantine has stood this country in good stead for a great many years. We should have to think extremely carefully before changing that system. It is fair to say that it is too early to make a full assessment of the new systems operating in Norway and Sweden, bearing in mind that the changes were implemented only in June 1994 and the incubation period for rabies is itself six months. Indeed, one must remember that the changes which have been made are based on a system of border controls which are illegal under single market rules.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the Minister agree that 15 years ago the Waterhouse inquiry, for which I take some responsibility, looked at the whole serious problem of rabies in this country? No change has taken place which would justify the repeal of the Act which Parliament implemented on the recommendations of that report.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, for reminding the House of the conclusions of the Waterhouse Report which, as he rightly says, reached the conclusion that quarantine should stay and, indeed, that it should be tightened up in certain respects. Since that time, there has been no case of rabies outside of quarantine, and that in itself tells a very powerful story.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that, before any steps are taken to relax the regulations, he will satisfy himself that the veterinary standards in the countries to the south and south-east of the European Community are as high and as well managed as those in this country?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very powerful point. It is the case that some European Union states are defined as "rabies-free" and others have had great success in reducing the incidence of cases through a widespread campaign of wildlife vaccinations. But there are countries in the Community and bordering it where rabies is still common.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, will the noble Earl tell the House whether there are any other countries in the European Union which, like us, do not have a dog registration scheme? As we do not have such a scheme, does that not put us in a very vulnerable position as regards having any sensible liaison with other countries should anything go wrong; that is, dogs coming into this country, going astray and then being unable to be traced?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I shall need to take advice regarding which members of the European Union have a dog registration scheme and which do not. However, I am sure that the noble Viscount will agree that it is the simplicity of the quarantine system which has, in many ways, proved its success. It is automatic that any animal, whether registered or not, enters quarantine on arrival at these shores. I do not believe that the question of a registration scheme in this country would assist or indeed detract from that fact.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, in regard to the reply that my noble friend gave to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn—namely, that there were no recent cases of rabies outside of quarantine—can he advise the House how many cases there have been of infected animals inside quarantine?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am aware that there was a case of an animal developing clinical rabies while in quarantine in 1990, when a dog from Zambia developed the disease. Before that I believe there was a further case in 1983. Cases do occur from time to time, but they are by no means common.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, the noble Earl has discounted the effectiveness of a dog registration scheme. However, if the quarantine system were to be abolished in this country, leading to demands from large sections of the public for the reintroduction of dog licensing in this country, would Her Majesty's Government respond to such a request?

Earl Howe

My Lords, some of the proposals put forward by the Select Committee would involve a de facto system of licensing. If any change were to be made, I believe that such a system would be necessary. It would be necessary to identify animals in a fail-safe manner.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what measures Her Majesty's Government have taken to prevent the Channel Tunnel being invaded by rabied rats?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I can reassure my noble friend on that score. Strict hygiene, supported by the use of poisoned bait, is being maintained in the Channel Tunnel to minimise the risk of colonisation by rodents. Should regular site inspections reveal any infestation by rodents, intensified treatment of specific areas will be carried out. Members of the state veterinary service and wildlife officers visit the whole area regularly to check on the measures and to give advice.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, given the fact that the environment Bill of, I believe, 1991 gave the Secretary of State the power to introduce a dog registration scheme, can the Minister tell the House whether any plans have been made so that, if it were necessary to do so, such a scheme could be implemented at short notice?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am not aware of any plans to introduce dog registration at short notice. However, I shall inquire of my right honourable friend and write to the noble Baroness if I am wrong in that respect.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, as the only common land border that we have with another EC country is that between Northern Ireland and the Republic, can my noble friend say whether it continues to be desirable for the Irish and ourselves to go step by step in the matter? Further, can my noble friend tell the House the attitude of the Irish Government?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend has made an important point. The Republic of Ireland is itself defined as rabies free as, of course, is the United Kingdom. My understanding is that the Government of the Republic are of one mind with ourselves.