HL Deb 15 March 1995 vol 562 cc868-91

4.11 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior rose to call attention to the possible relaxation of quarantine controls relating to animals, with particular respect to rabies; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we are justly proud of the high health status of animals in the United Kingdom. That has been achieved by the help of our island situation and by the rigorous application of import controls and the application of equally rigorous measures should exotic animal disease enter.

The country has experienced devastating episodes of animal disease in the past, some being of such national concern that in 1865 the then Archbishop of Canterbury sought the ear of the Lord in a prayer saying: Stay, we pray Thee, this plague. Shield our home from its ravages when rinderpest was devastating the country.

Though this and other diseases are things of the past, the price of such freedom is eternal vigilance—a task devolving on our highly competent and world respected animal health service. I am sure that no one would wish to weaken this fortunate health status achieved by rigorous application of controls, but this should not mean a rigid attitude to change which could achieve as much, if not more, control than hitherto and at the same time allow greater freedom of movement both of animals and people for agriculture, sport, commerce and companionship purposes.

We are all aware of the particular importance of animals in our society in this country. In this House periodically there are debates concerned with animals. It would be foolhardy—especially for me, a veterinarian—to argue for changes which would not guarantee the continued high health status of animals in the United Kingdom.

The report of the Agriculture Committee of another place on Health Controls on the Importation of Live Animals has met with a positive response from Her Majesty's Government, with the exception of the proposals for the changes to prevent the importation of rabies and the removal of quarantine requirements for dogs and cats from the European Union and certain other countries elsewhere in the world.

As I believe all noble Lords will admit, rabies, with its distressing course and invariably fatal outcome, is one of the most dreaded diseases of man and animals. The first allusion to it in the British Isles was in 1026 in the laws of Howell the Good of Wales, and periodic outbreaks occurred until 1922, after which the country has remained free, with the exception of rabies in two dogs, one of which (in 1969) was probably infected in quarantine and the other (in 1970) probably had an abnormally long incubation period, being infected before going into quarantine. As a result of those two cases, the Waterhouse Committee recommended that all dogs and cats entering quarantine should be vaccinated to prevent the intra-quarantine transmission of the disease.

Since 1971 nearly 200,000 dogs and cats have been through quarantine, having been vaccinated when they entered quarantine, and two cases of rabies have occurred within quarantine, both in animals whose origins were from outside the now European Union. No cases of rabies have occurred after release from quarantine—which tells us two things: the effectiveness of quarantine but also that no dogs entered quarantine incubating rabies, since the vaccine does not prevent the development of rabies once a dog or a cat has been infected.

What is the validity of the claim that a system of vaccination can replace quarantine? I shall attempt to parade the evidence that has been given to the Agriculture Committee and elsewhere in a large amount of documentation. First, the countries to which this would apply arc either free of rabies—Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries, the majority of which are islands—or countries of the European Union, some of which also are already free of the disease, or those with an extremely low prevalence of dog or cat rabies and which have not experienced any human rabies for several years-20 years or more. Some of these countries have extensive wildlife (fox) rabies, but this is a different situation with respect to human and dog health, as I shall explain later.

Secondly, the vaccine now used—dead vaccine—has proved completely effective in both man and dogs. In man it has been effective not only when given prior to exposure but even immediately following exposure. Unfortunately, that is not the case with dogs, since if they are exposed to rabies prior to vaccination they may well then go on to suffer rabies.

There is a possibility that cats with immuno-deficient virus infection will not respond well, but it is now believed that this is only the case when cats have developed an extensive form of the immuno-deficient disease and they would be unlikely to be candidates for exportation. When they are incubating the immuno-deficient disease, the evidence seems to be that they would respond effectively to the rabies vaccine.

Thirdly, it is now agreed that the vaccine may be safer than quarantine on two points: first, it would prevent rabies well beyond the six-month period covered by quarantine and thus avoid the cases of prolonged incubation to which I referred a' short while ago; secondly, because it is much cheaper than quarantine, it will reduce the temptation to avoid quarantine—the smuggling of dogs and cats into the country—which occurs. The amount of smuggling is unknown, but we know that between the years 1985 and 1993 some 800 dogs and cats entered the country illegally. Probably more did so but we have no real idea of the iceberg beyond the 800. The important point is that none of those has introduced rabies into the country.

The fourth point is that the system of proposed controls similar to the Swedish model would entail strict requirements. They are: identification, via a microchip; six months' residence in an approved country; vaccination and proof that the vaccine has worked by evidence of good response; and possession of a passport showing vaccination and other health requirements. Quarantine for dogs and cats would still remain for all other countries.

What would be the benefits of a system based on vaccination? It would allow greater ability to travel with one's pets. It would allow people with pets both to travel into this country and to leave the country with their pets, so that it would increase tourism greatly. It would increase the mobility of people wishing to work in other countries, and there is good evidence that people may not move to another country because of the present restrictions. Indeed, there has already been a change in quarantine requirements through the Balai directive, under which commercial dogs and cats can he imported. The provisions of the directive are strict, though not too dissimilar from those proposed by the Agriculture Committee.

What then are the concerns? To dog, cat and human health the risks are infinitesimal. There has been no case of human rabies in the European Union for the past 20 years; and it is estimated that if free movement of dogs from, say, a country such as Germany, with no mandatory vaccination, were allowed at the level of 5,000 dogs per year imported into this country, it would be 30 years before a rabid dog entered the country. From those countries that have mandatory vaccination, on the same scale the period would be 1,000 years.

Wildlife rabies is of particular concern. The fox population in this country is greater than in other European countries, and it is quite different, with the urban fox population. It has often been said that, were rabies to be introduced into the fox population, the effect would be devastating. That is quite correct. But Professor Harris of Bristol University, who has studied the subject extensively, maintains that the chances of fox rabies entering this country are infinitesimal. The rabies virus has the characteristic known as compartmentation, whereby fox rabies is restricted to foxes and dog rabies is restricted to dogs and humans and the two never meet. In other words, to get fox rabies introduced into this country one has to introduce a rabid fox. The chances of that occurring must be very low indeed since no one other than an arsonist would wish to import a rabid fox into this country. The chances of it coming through the Channel Tunnel are, as we now know, very remote indeed. Fox rabies does not spill over into the human population, as witness the absence of human rabies in a sea of fox rabies in Germany. The only source of fox rabies would be the importation of a rabid fox.

What then are the problems in adopting the vaccination instead of quarantine? It is fair to say that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the British Veterinary Association and other bodies accept, with the exception of a few points, the scientific evidence that quarantine is no longer scientifically tenable. The problems lie with compliance: to ensure compliance at the point of origin, to undertake regular inspection and to ensure the reliability of micro-chipping. In this country some 150,000 dogs have been micro-chipped and two famous dogs have recently had it done to them. The cost to the taxpayer is also a concern.

Relaxation of quarantine has already taken place through the Balai directive. Stringent control has nevertheless permitted more freedom of movement for commercial animals. Modifications of the Balai directive must, I submit, be possible. The present quarantine regulations are a major restriction on the freedom of movement of animals and people within the European Union. I submit that one of the ways ahead is that we should move fairly quickly, possibly to a two-part arrangement using the Balai directive as a model: first, to arrange that certain countries outside the European Union—such as Australia, New Zealand and others —should be included in the vaccination proposals. That would require some lead time during which we would have the experience of what is happening in Norway and Sweden. We would then be able to judge whether total allowance of animals coming in under the vaccination proposals would be possible. Should that Swedish experience be disastrous, we would need to stop any further progress.

I believe that the time is now ripe for the process to begin. I trust that the Minister will shed some positive light on doing so. I beg to move for Papers.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, this is one of those occasions when the atmosphere of your Lordships' House is conducive to restrained discretion and reasonable argument on a controversial subject. That suits the style of the noble Lord who introduced the Motion. I am proud to follow him. We always listen to the only veterinary surgeon in your Lordships' House and pay the highest tribute to his experience and wisdom in these matters. I wish we had more such people.

The veterinary side of life is increasing in importance and value all the time. I need not enlarge on that. It is not merely a matter of pets; dogs and cats. We are becoming concerned a great deal more with the animals we exploit—those we eat and all the other things that man requires of the animal kingdom. When one listens to the noble Lord, one finds him persuasive, full of facts and arguments. One is apt to say, "Well, then, what about it? Why can't we begin?" Noble Lords know as well as I do that you cannot begin to change something that is so deeply rooted in the English tradition as rabies control without taking account of public opinion.

In my lifetime, many people in this country have become obsessed with the word "rabies". They are scared of rabies; they are anxious to maintain anything that protects them from this unknown horror. It is a subject upon which a combination of prejudice and exaggeration can wreak havoc with any political consideration of the matter. As Rab Butler so wisely said years ago, the art of politics is the art of the possible. It is public opinion that we have to deal with here.

I was delighted that the Select Committee on Agriculture in another place decided to give attention to the matter. I was more surprised still when the committee produced a report which was so reasonable and rational, and so favourable to a different approach. However, before the debate had been under way for many days, the Government decided: "We're having none of this. We're going to nip this one in the bud before the tabloids get at us". So they decided that it was not going to happen. Since then the debate has petered out and, save for a modest amount of attention, it has not occupied the more reasonable and rational press.

There is a serious problem in relation to getting these things done. Let us be honest. We have a government who would rather do nothing than do something which may land them in more trouble. I am afraid that the report received all too scant and abrupt a reception from the Government. They could have put it forward as a matter that the public should earnestly consider. It has to come. We cannot be an island on our own for ever. We have become so used to our island status, and to doing things our own way, that we find it very difficult to arrive at a point of view in order to accommodate our interests with those of others. Nevertheless, we have to learn.

I do not take a dogmatic approach this afternoon. There are some aspects of the single market and some points about the free transportation of agricultural merchandise and animals that must lead us to pause before we concede to full freedom of movement in the European Union. I need not mention the genuine concern throughout the country, as never before in my experience, over the transportation of young farm animals to Europe for slaughter. We see the difficulties of remedying the position. We have to wait for standards to improve before we can be content. We have no control over our animals when we send them across the Channel. It is not our business to do more than ask for confirmation and observance of mutually agreed conditions in the European Union. Other countries are slow to come to the kind of standards we now require.

A debate must be initiated. We must get people used to the idea and get them to understand the lack of risk in this matter. The British seem completely to misunderstand the risk attached to things in life. I remember one of the first Dimbleby Lectures by the late Lord Rothschild on the risks of life. It was surprising how small the risks were in many of the cases that most excite public anxiety. We cannot live with our risks. We have to consider whether we can reasonably reduce them further without consequences that make the cure worse than the disease. I hope that we shall encourage the debate and ask for more facts and contributions in respect of the matter that is under consideration.

There is an additional prejudice in relation to rabies. It is usually associated with dogs. There is a dog phobia in Britain today. We have to elevate the animal that is supposed to be man's best friend to the level of estimation that we expect from that status. Do not let us dismiss this matter and feel that it can wait for other people to take it up later. That is all I have to say.

Good will and understanding are now wanted. Most of us should endeavour to bring about the atmosphere in which change may be made. Quarantine is a distressing experience, both for the animals and for their owners. It is unjustifiable to impose it for any longer than is necessary as a guard against a contingency which—grievous as it would be if it arose—is becoming less and less likely. I am very grateful to the noble Lord who has introduced this subject. I hope that we shall all give him and those who think like him a good deal of support in the debate to come.

4.37 p.m.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo

My Lords, it is always a very humbling experience to follow the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and to listen to all the wisdom and knowledge that he brings. I welcome this short debate, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior. It gives us the opportunity yet again to debate animal welfare, a subject which is so dear to our hearts, and in particular the subject of rabies.

Dogs in this country—I want to concentrate my comments mostly on dogs and cats—are used by many different individuals. Blind people in particular, of course, but others use dogs as part of their everyday life. One has only to look round the Houses of Parliament to see the police sniffer dogs being used. They play an important part in our everyday life. Dogs are also used to sniff out smuggled drugs and illegal arms traders. So we are more and more dependent on the use of dogs.

All such dogs—except, for some unknown reason, military dogs—are subject to quarantine restrictions which the Government are set, as we see it at the moment, to continue into the future. It has been estimated that 150,000 dogs and cats have been taken into quarantine between 1972 and 1993. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, mentioned a figure of 200,000; the exact figure is unquantifiable, but it is very large. That number of dogs has been taken into quarantine over a period of 20 years. As the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, also said, only two cases of rabies were detected. Both were caused by the very dangerous live vaccine, as opposed to the dead vaccine. Those cases would never have occurred under a passport system, as we have already heard.

Around 150,000 dogs and cats suffered in quarantine for no purpose at all, including 2,000 which died. They were examined for rabies subsequent to their death and tested negative.

The Agricultural Select Committee in another place heard evidence—I shall not rehearse the comments already made by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby—from all quarters. It carried out research and unanimously called for change. Here I refer to dogs and cats from European countries. The agricultural committee categorically identified that an animal passport supported by an updated vaccination certificate, a blood test and a microchip offered a much improved method of keeping the country free of rabies.

If the need for quarantine were to be removed, it would in turn remove the need to smuggle animals into this country. The numbers are high and obviously not reported—smugglers do not put up their hands and say, "I smuggled an animal into this country". However, Mr. John Simmonds, head of Kent's trading standards department which handles the prosecution of smugglers, warned, When the Channel Tunnel really gets going people will hide animals and get them through—it is inevitable". Quarantine is inefficient and ineffective and gives inducement to smuggle. Quarantine is expensive and distressing to the animals involved. In that regard I speak as a serviceman who has brought animals back into this country and twice had to put a dog into kennels. To see those dogs in quarantine, although one visited them, was extremely distressing. The blind and the deaf still cannot travel, yet the Government admit that any dog in the UK, properly vaccinated and tested, can go abroad and return in complete safety.

We should remind ourselves that the meaning of the word "pet" is that it is a domestic animal kept for pleasure or companionship. While I have nothing against quarantine establishments, it is traumatic for family pets, used to good homes and healthy exercise, to be kept in cages in quarantine. Kennels are small because they have to be and the runs are often not as clean as they should be. As a result, the health of animals undoubtedly suffers. For some unknown reason, on which possibly other noble Lords or the Minister can enlighten me, RSPCA inspectors are not admitted into quarantine quarters to carry out inspections.

Can the Minister say whether there is any evidence from the veterinary department to show that the removal of quarantine regulations for dogs and cats belonging to pet owners would allow the spread of rabies into this country? Further, can he say why the Government continue to reject the findings of the Agricultural Select Committee in another place? Quarantine does not keep out rabies. Quarantine causes distress; costs a lot of money and locks up healthy animals.

4.44 p.m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, in this debate today we are being asked to consider the possibility of some relaxation in the quarantine controls in this country. The problem that this House must face is to decide whether or not a case has been made for scrapping the firm recommendations made by the Waterhouse Committee in 1970. The committee said categorically that it was unwise to rely on vaccination as a substitute for quarantine. In 1970, when the committee was looking at the problem—both an interim and a final report were produced—it looked at the whole spread of rabies across Europe.

In 1970 rabies was advancing towards the Channel at 25 miles a year, mostly through the Ardennes in Belgium. The Waterhouse Committee was looking at a European Community which at that stage was made up of only Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and Denmark. Since that time there has been a successful programme of inoculation, particularly of foxes in the wild, throughout Europe. But we are looking at a period of only 10 years during which that success has been achieved and I should like to see an extended period before one is satisfied that the spread of rabies within those five European countries has been contained.

Another problem pointed out by my noble friend is that all the veterinary evidence shows that there is a greater success rate with the vaccination of dogs than of cats. The fact that the vaccination of cats is not totally successful was recognised by the new Swedish and Norwegian regulations. The Select Committee in another place said that it wished to see the immediate scrapping of quarantine and a change to vaccination built up with microchip identification and animal passports.

Microchip technology is in its infancy. There are five companies each vying with the others to obtain approval for its specific microchip. At this stage of our considerations it would help if there were an early decision on which chip is to be approved. Which chip will be accepted for the Balai Convention? The Balai Convention lays down clearly that we must have an approved system of identification.

The problem lies not only in deciding which one of the five chips is considered to be the best, but also in appreciating that a chip is no good without an electronic reader. We must face the fact that large expenditure will he involved in supplying every port in this country where animals can be imported. The passport and the chip must be checked. That is a far greater problem than the select committee in another place realised. We shall he faced with equipping every little fishing port and landing place with an electronic reader so that when somebody arrives in his yacht with his pet and its passport checks can he made. That will be a major development.

We must realise also that we are likely to be-looking at a much wider Europe than the Europe at which Waterhouse was looking. It may be difficult for my noble friend, when he comes to reply to the debate, to comment on the veterinary standards of Greece, Italy and Spain. But, even if it is not very tactful, it must be said that veterinary education in those countries falls a long way short of what we expect in this country. The standard of inspection of the veterinary schools in those countries is far short of that in our schools here. As part of the possible relaxation, we must make it clear that the standard of veterinary education and veterinary inspection of schools in all those countries must be raised before we can consider this problem.

It is not only a question of the southern edge of Europe—Italy, Greece and Spain. Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania are about to join the EC. We have already experienced one disastrous horse disease—EVA—which came into this country entirely due to the failure of the Polish veterinary service. Another problem is the danger of importation into this country of animals, particularly dogs, that were taken into these countries as the first stage. There is a danger of those countries being used as a staging post for importation into this country. We must be certain that there is no relaxation in that area.

As my noble friend said, two outbreaks of rabies have occurred in this country. The worst one was in 1919 to 1922. It was caused by the pets of returning ex-servicemen. Luckily, it was not fuelled in any way by cross-infection in this country, and died out. Veterinary science has given us a goal to work towards but many safeguards have to be built into any new system. The chipping procedures must be standard and must prove to be tamper-proof. The experiment being conducted by the Kennel Club and the Battersea Dogs' Home gives one great hope that one of the chipping systems is tamper-proof. We want to be assured that the cat vaccine is effective. It must be proved and then developed. We need to know the cost of a national chip reader programme, because without that the system will be ineffective. All this needs to be be proved and costed and worked to a truly European standard—a standard for the whole of the extended EU. These conditions are the minimum before we can think of changing our safeguards.

4.50 p.m.

Baroness Wharton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, for introducing this debate on rabies. Even though rabies had been present in Britain for most of recorded history, very few cases were recorded in wild animals. However, rabies among the stray dog population was an enormous problem. So, in 1901, Walter Long MP, the then President of the Board of Agriculture, brought in quarantine laws. By 1902, the disease had been eliminated with the control of stray dogs. As we know, the next outbreak occurred after the First World War, with servicemen smuggling dogs into this country. However, the disease was speedily dealt with by the destruction of stray dogs and muzzle and leash restrictions. Apart from two other incidents, well documented and not imported from Europe, we have continued to be rabies free.

I have to say that prior to listening to a talk on rabies by Professor Stephen Harris, of the University of Bristol, to an all-party animal welfare group in January, I did not question the quarantine laws, believing that they were the only way to control rabies. I now know that we have an alternative. As the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, outlined, we have an effective vaccine. In order to fall into line with the European Union, I believe that we too should adopt this method of immunisation rather than subject animals to six months' quarantine when they have already been inoculated against the disease and carry the necessary documentation to that effect.

Clearly, no pet has entered this country from the European Union carrying the virus. As we have heard, we quarantined some 100,000 dogs and 50,000 cats between 1972 and 1993, with no outbreak originating from Europe. A percentage of older animals do not survive the ordeal; others become traumatised and are unable to return to their owners. With the opening up of opportunities in Europe, many families are relocating abroad. Those with pets ensure that their animals are inoculated against all the diseases in the country to which they are going. However, heartbreak comes when they have to return to this country and are faced with either having to leave their pets behind or subjecting them to six months' quarantine. Since January 1993, Customs checks appear to have been relaxed at ports of entry. I should think that in 1995 it is relatively easy to smuggle in an animal.

Returning to a conversation I had with Professor Harris, it would appear that, even though we have been exposed to a risk from Europe and elsewhere, no rabid animal has been smuggled into Britain in recent years. I understand that the virus appears to have strains that are pre-adapted to particular hosts and do not seem to transfer readily between hosts. It is interesting to note that at the turn of the century rabies was common in dogs here but was not transferred to the fox population. Therefore, if a rabid dog, which is infected with a strain of virus adapted for dogs, bites a fox, both will die, but the odds are against the fox passing it on to other foxes. The reverse is also true. At this point in time I think it is highly unlikely that a dog, if bitten by a fox, would not be taken to a veterinary surgeon and treated. However, foxes tend to avoid dogs.

According to the Rabies Bulletin Europe, which I picked up in the Library, a sample taken between April and June 1994 showed that 11 countries were rabies free, and of the others, only a handful of cases were found in dogs and cats. In France, Italy and Austria there were no cases of rabies in dogs. The problem is greatest in Poland and the Russian Federation but even there it is diminishing. In Europe, the majority of outbreaks occur in foxes, not domestic pets.

Europe has had great success with its programme of oral immunisation. So far, we appear to be the only country not contemplating an oral vaccination programme. I am told that MAFF considers the use of poisoned baits to be the most effective method of rabies control. Given that we have a high density of urban foxes, I wonder what would be the effect on the pet population in cities. The vaccine has improved considerably since those two dogs developed rabies in 1969.

I hope that Her Majesty's Government will look again at the Agriculture Select Committee's fifth report on the health controls on the importation of live animals. The report clearly recognises the enormous scientific advances in vaccination and blood testing as an alternative to quarantine for companion animals. I really cannot accept that countries like Sweden and Norway, which have been rabies free for far longer than us, are less conscientious when it comes to protecting their own wildlife. If they can allow into their country domestic pets which have been microchipped and vaccinated with an improved inactivated rabies vaccine and blood tested, surely we can give this alternative method of protection the serious consideration it deserves.

I read the Government's reply to the report. I did not find k very helpful. The reference to the Norway/Sweden method as, still very novel and unproven",

is slightly dismissive. It is easy to sit back and continue to monitor the performance of the new arrangements. What responsible pet owners who work within the EU want is some positive action. After all—as the agriculture committee's report and the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, said—should 1,000 dogs chosen at random in France be imported into the UK each year, it could be expected that a dog incubating rabies could enter once every 1,250 years! We have seen more and more dogs and cats quarantined over the years and still there has not been one case of rabies since 1922, with the exception of the two already mentioned. Smuggling dogs into this country is wrong. When the Channel Tunnel becomes fully operational, and border controls are inevitably more relaxed, it will become rather like catching rainwater with a sieve. And where will our quarantine laws be then?

Finally, what about working dogs, which are sent for duty on the other side of the Channel? If they are to continue to be useful, they will have to remain on the Continent, as they will not be able to return and work in the UK. As these dogs are extremely expensive to train, I suspect that the Customs dog unit will be hoping for a change in the law, or extra money for training new dogs.

Immunisation would cost between £15 and £20 while quarantine costs up to £1,200. If I had a choice, I know which method I would choose. The public at large are still not aware that countries in Europe have had an immunisation policy for some years. I do not want to give the impression that I believe that quarantine laws should be lifted universally, because that is not so. Europe's problem is rabies within the fox population, and we are not quarantining them. We already know that cross-species infection is remote. Dog and cat cases are becoming fewer and fewer in number. Horses which carry the requisite documentation and veterinary certificates are able to return to this country. All I ask is that we should consider putting the necessary procedures into motion so that companion animals which live with families and which comply with all the recommendations can he allowed back into the UK.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am grateful to live in a rabies-free country and I want it to remain so. Therefore, I supported Her Majesty's Government in 1992 when they secured a Community commitment that any proposals on importation of pet animals must offer at least the same level of protection as exists for trade dogs and cats and quarantine.

However, I am concerned that there is now a greater risk of rabies from pet smuggling than from relaxing the quarantine regulations. The RSPCA and customs and veterinary officers that I have spoken to have warned me that illegal entries of animals through the tunnel will rise dramatically with the number of passengers, cars and lorries. The various port authorities rely on the public to report sightings of possible smuggled animals, but with innumerable uncontrolled ports and airstrips, river estuaries and thousands of miles of coastline, the possibilities of smuggling are immense.

Given the profound reluctance of many people to he parted from their pets for six months, the outrageous cost (which in itself leads to a great deal of abandonment) and the cruelty of quarantine, it seems inevitable that the vaunted protective barrier will he breached.

I now believe that Her Majesty's Government should seriously consider alternatives to quarantine, particularly as the antibody blood test is so effective. Clearly, the public must be assured that the dog or cat presented on entry is the same animal that has been vaccinated, as the reliability of veterinary certificates in some countries is very questionable. I quite agree with my noble friend Lord Kimball on this point.

But we cannot forever carry on locking up healthy pets. We need a modern, reliable and humane system which will enable properly vaccinated and blood tested pets, clearly identified by an approved tattoo or implanted microchip, to come into the United Kingdom with their owners. I am sure that the public will welcome and use such a system because they will know that, unlike quarantine, it is fair and affordable. Vaccination and blood testing will enable this country to stay rabies free. Costs should be at the owner's expense, rather than down to the public purse.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, said, it is significant that Denmark, Norway and Sweden, all rabies free, recently abandoned quarantine in favour of vaccination and antibody testing. Scandinavian health authorities do not take unnecessary risks. Interestingly, Sweden insists that pet owners have their own microchip reading equipment. These pocket machines cost under £200, but I understand that prices are expected to come down in future.

It must surely be only a matter of time before the Government agree to ease the six-month period of quarantine in line with other European Union countries. I understand that Her Majesty's Government will be monitoring closely the Scandinavian system and the performance of the new arrangements for importing trade dogs and cats into this country other than through quarantine.

Would Her Majesty's Government consider widening their monitoring to include pets of service personnel, the Diplomatic Service and the blind, deaf and disabled who rely on their guide dogs? On the whole, these are responsible groups of people. Having served overseas in the Army, I feel particularly strongly about the plight of the Armed Forces. Under Army regulations soldiers must have pets vaccinated and carry an up-to-date passport clearly annotated. It would not be difficult to extend this to a requirement that electronic identity "chips" are implanted in these animals, with owners carrying their own microchip reading equipment for journeys to the United Kingdom. I understand that many service pets are already clearly identified with Kennel Club registration numbers of different countries tattooed in their ears. Our troops feel particularly aggrieved in Cyprus, which is rabies free. I hope that my noble friend will give this proposal his serious consideration.

Would my noble friend also consider the plight of the Customs Drug Unit sniffer dogs at Dover, which are being moved to the control zone at the tunnel terminal near Calais? They will not be allowed to return to this country unless they first endure six months' confinement in quarantine kennels.

5.5 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. I would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, for introducing it, as one would expect, so expertly. I dare say that, as is often the case, the debate which we have had in your Lordships' House reflects the views of any similar discussion which may take place in a reasonably well informed household. I believe that the views and fears which have been expressed across the House are pretty well shared throughout our community.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, referred to risk and the perception of risk. I absolutely agree with him. I would go further and say that the perception of risk in our society depends an enormous amount on television and other media coverage. Often the perception of risk gets somewhat out of balance, which is probably the case with rabies. A number of noble Lords have pointed out that, happily, there have been only two cases since 1922 detected within United Kingdom shores.

However, we must not underestimate the risk. Anyone who has heard of a human being infected by rabies would not wish to leave any stone unturned to find proper ways to prevent it coming to these shores.

Smuggling has been referred to by several noble Lords. It is probably much more widespread than we think, and it is likely to increase. The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, referred to the many ports and airfields in our country which are easy points of access for pets carried in by people for whatever purpose, whether it is just frustration at our laws or for more nefarious reasons. We have to be vigilant.

It is an expensive and distressing business to have dogs in quarantine. It is always distressing to have dogs in kennels awaiting the outcome of whatever deliberations are taking place. I refer now to dogs who are languishing in kennels, at great expense to the taxpayer, as a result of the Dangerous Dogs Act. I would also like to pay tribute again to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, who has endeavoured on many occasions to get the Government to accept some kind of advisory body to enable decisions to be arrived at in a better way than one suspects happens through media pressure. There will he continuing media pressure about the risk of rabies.

Some of the most interesting remarks in the debate, because they dealt with the new technology, were made by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball. He referred to the microchip and the difficulties in arriving at a decision as to which microchip to use. He mentioned that there are five, which I know. We are getting closer to the point where there will be a uniform acceptance of one chip and one scanner.

Perhaps I may refer to another area of microchip use. Scanners and chips are used very much to help detect stolen vehicles, which is a problem with which I am much concerned. I know that we are very close to uniformity of chip and scanner in that field. The chip is effectively the same as that which goes into a cow's ear or the scruff of a dog's neck.

The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, put his finger on what we lack at the moment. I refer to a proper European standard on dog identification and vaccination. Indeed, if I dare say so, we need a dog registration scheme. I do not want to enrage the noble Earl by going further. It always enrages the Government when we talk about dog registration. Inevitably, however, when one vaccinates dogs and information on that is stored on computer, it is de facto a registration scheme. Such a registration scheme will come sooner or later, and the Government will have to accept it, whether it is run by local authorities or other bodies, because that is the only way in which we can control matters such as we are discussing this afternoon.

Now that I am warming to my task of being critical of the Government over pets, and dogs in particular, perhaps I may say that we seem to order pet welfare and the control of pets in this country in an extraordinarily haphazard and unsatisfactory manner, especially for a country which prides itself on its worldwide reputation as a nation of animal lovers. Having said that, however, we now seem to be moving towards being able to assess such problems properly. The debate has enabled us to air the problems, and great expertise has been shown in the views expressed.

We must recognise that there is a risk and ask ourselves whether we have an effective replacement for the quarantine system that is in place, with all its faults and undesirable consequences. I believe that we are probably near to such a position. Technology has now developed so that we can identify animals efficiently. If necessary, pages of data about an animal can be stored on a computer and be readily available to those with scanners. I hope that the noble Earl will be able to tell us how near we are to being able to replace quarantine with a system that is at least as effective as the present one. Having said that, this has been an excellent debate, as I am sure that all those outside the House who are interested in the problem will agree.

5.13 p.m.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, in speaking in this debate on behalf of the official Opposition, I shall place some reliance on the response of Her Majesty's Government to the document that was produced by the Select Committee in the other place. I refer to Command Paper 2735. If I go a little wider than the question of rabies and domestic pets, I hope that the House will accept that wider issues relating to animal health are involved, in addition to those mentioned in the Motion which was so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior. I also propose to ask the Minister a number of questions. In view of their nature, I do not expect to receive replies this evening.

The Government's response to the Select Committee report is good and comprehensive. Although I may not always agree with the Government's view of the points raised in that report, they have undoubtedly treated it with the seriousness that it deserves. However, the Government's comment that the creation of a single market from 1st January 1993 has not, increased to any appreciable extent",

the disease risk from imports has prompted the thought in my mind that it may yet be early days for making such a comment. One would have liked to discuss the motivation for live animal imports. Not being a specialist in the area, I envisage that pedigree breeding may play a part, but what about the rest? Perhaps we should be asking the farming livestock community why such imports are necessary and to what extent they are likely to increase.

We agree with both parties—that is, the Select Committee and the Government—that a holding period for imports is an essential safety factor. The only question is whether a three-day period is adequate, as opposed to the seven-day period that was recommended by the Select Committee. What has happened, if anything, since the Government's response was published in Command Paper 2735?

The Government are at pains to stress the importers' responsibility. I agree totally. However, if an importer is responsible in terms of any introduction of disease, how can the Government ensure serious, effective and continuing discharge of such responsibility? If exporters of livestock may soon be regulated or licensed to ensure observance of transport and welfare requirements, can we safely leave imports to poster campaigns?

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, will be happy to hear me say that we agree that veterinary standards are a key area. We also support the provision of European Community funds for the Advisory Committee on Veterinary Training. We were disappointed that the Commission decided to discontinue that, particularly in view of what has been said this evening about variations in the standard of veterinary training throughout the Community. Can the Minister tell us what grounds the Commission had for withdrawing finance from that important advisory committee?

Reliable certification is basic to safety. How much can reporting malpractice to authorities in exporting countries be relied upon? What sanctions are available for abuse or deficiency in that respect?

I turn now to border inspection posts, which have been mentioned by other noble Lords. We are concerned that in their response to the Select Committee, Her Majesty's Government regard the establishment of import inspection posts as matters for "commercial decision" by operators. Is there any centralised information point about existing posts, as well as about patterns of use? Other noble Lords have mentioned the growth of trade at small ports with regard to imports. We certainly know a great deal about the growth in terms of exports. The principles of certification are essential for Community initiatives in this area. However, we also need a document which avoids the pitfalls that are associated with spoof invoices. What progress has taken place in that area since the Government's reply to the Select Committee was published?

The prevailing disease situation in other member states and third countries is also important. We should like to know whether a single source of information exists or whether the establishment of such a source is contemplated.

I turn now to the issue of the quarantine of pet dogs and pet cats. I remember being greatly amused by a radio programme in which a Frenchman was asked what he would like to return as if there were reincarnation. He promptly said that he would like to be a dog in England. I do not know whether that was because we are rabies-free or because our pet dogs are creatures much to be envied by Frenchmen who are asked questions on the radio.

The Government's response to the report mentions that there has been progress towards the eradication of rabies, particularly in Western Europe. We would welcome more detail about that eradication, especially as regards areas bordering the English Channel about which other noble Lords have expressed concern. Naturally, there is such concern in East Kent, especially now that the Tunnel is fully operational—even to the extent that customers are turned away.

We ask whether there are alternatives to quarantine. Has the ending of dog licensing and Her Majesty's Government's consistent refusal to consider even a dog registration scheme heightened the risk that is associated with any scheme to replace quarantine with the alternatives proposed by the Select Committee? That point was properly raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland.

Pressures for easements for pets are not just about quarantine, they continue to grow; for example, local authorities and housing associations are being asked to lift restrictions in some of their housing schemes to allow domestic animals to be kept as pets.

The alternative systems of control proposed by the Select Committee and, for various reasons, turned down by the Government are somewhat reluctantly accepted by us, at least for the present. The risks associated with relaxation, however small, exist, and the responsibility for authorising that even such risk is acceptable is a considerable one for any government to take. To that extent, we can understand and sympathise with the Government's present caution.

Her Majesty's Government's response to the details of protection schemes recommended by the Select Committee—vaccination, blood checking and the unique identification of animals concerned—accepts their validity in protecting against rabies in cats and dogs, but stresses that that is subject to effective control in practice. That view is shared by the British Veterinary Association and others. The Government, however, say also that it would be premature to introduce immediate changes. I wonder whether in the use of the words "immediate changes" there is a prospect that changes might Ix possible at some date in the future, perhaps when the technical improvements mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, have taken place. Does that mean however that such changes could be made in the future? Are there conditions which could be met then with more certainty than now? That is a question which arises naturally from the comment made by the Government in their response to the Select Committee.

The distinction suggested by the Select Committee for "approved" countries, while sound in theory, may be less easy to practise, even with a licensing and passport system. One has only to watch from Langford Cliff the flow of traffic at Dover Port on a busy Saturday in summer to recognise that any system requiring even random checking will seriously affect the present highly efficient and speedy operation at that port. As others have said, the possible use of checks on cross-Channel railway travel one can only guess at in the light of the limited operating experience we have had to date.

This has been a highly important debate, and one conducted as always on this subject in your Lordships' House with a great deal of sense and responsibility. We are indebted, as I said at the outset, to the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaftham Prior. We look forward with anticipation to a fairly heavy task which in my opinion now confronts the Minister.

5.22 p.m.

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

My Lords, like so many other speakers, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Soulsby for prompting this debate. It comes at a very opportune time when we have just had an inquiry into this subject by the Select Committee in another place. The Government's response was published in January. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, for his endorsement of that response.

The debate has shown that this is a very sensitive issue. Indeed many of the points which have been raised were discussed within government when we considered the report of the Select Committee. On the one hand, it is clear that our current quarantine arrangements cause a great deal of distress and concern to pet owners, a point made powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, and others. Many feel that they are placed in a very difficult position when having to consider moving abroad for career or personal reasons. There can be few cases more poignant in the postbag of an agriculture Minister than the letters from those returning from abroad to the United Kingdom with pet cats and dogs they have grown to love over the years which are now reaching the end of their natural lives and whose owners feel will not survive the six months' quarantine. I can assure your Lordships that we take no pleasure whatsoever in that situation and would dearly love to be able to remove the burden of quarantine which causes such anguish in those cases.

However, one has also to recognise—a fact which many noble Lords have stressed—that rabies remains a serious health risk in many parts of the world, and although progress has been made towards its eradication, particularly in Western Europe, there are many countries, including parts of Europe, where the incidence of animal rabies remains high. Although animals, both wild and pet animals, can be vaccinated against the disease and humans can be treated, it is nevertheless an extremely unpleasant disease and once symptoms emerge in man it is invariably fatal.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said that rabies was usually associated in the public perception with dogs. He may be interested to know that in Florida only last Friday television programmes were interrupted with the message that rabies had been confirmed in two cats and people were advised not to let their children play out of doors and ensure that their pets were fully vaccinated. That is only one incident, but it is a telling one and should give us pause.

Rabies was eradicated from the United Kingdom in the early part of this century and we believe the consequences of the disease re-entering the United Kingdom would be severe. An outbreak of the disease would lead to the destruction of wildlife over a wide area and onerous controls on pet owners until the disease was wiped out. It would be an extremely difficult time, not just for government but for all those living or working in the area where disease was confirmed. Although it is not possible to put a price on the value that society places on our current freedom from rabies, the Government, like the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, believe that it is substantial. The Government therefore endorse the view put forward by the Select Committee in its report that it would never support a change in our rules which increased the likelihood of rabies entering the United Kingdom. We believe that that central principle must be borne in mind when considering any change from the current arrangements.

Quarantine was introduced at the beginning of the century to prevent the reintroduction of rabies into Great Britain. As my noble friend Lord Soulsby said, it has done so effectively since 1922, except for two isolated and quickly resolved incidents in 1969 and 1970. Because the system is based on licensing of animals before arrival and the controlled movement of animals between the authorised port of entry and the quarantine kennels, it does not rely on border controls and has been able to continue to offer the same level of protection since the introduction of the Single Market. It has the additional advantage that it is not dependent on accuracy of identification or certification.

My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever and the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, suggested that quarantine encourages smuggling and increases the risk of rabies through illegal imports. The Government do not accept that. The current rules are simple and the public know and understand them. A system which would lead to substantial numbers of pet animals openly entering the UK with their owners would lead the public to make the presumption that any cats and dogs they observed were legal imports and we would lose valuable co-operation from the public in detecting illegal imports.

My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever and the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, suggested that there might be a possible rise in the illegal entry of animals as a result of the Channel Tunnel. The situation with the tunnel is the same as it is with other ports of entry. Animals are not permitted on trains using the tunnel, but there is always the risk that irresponsible people might try to smuggle animals. As at other ports and airports, the general public and H.M. Customs will be our first line of defence against the possibility of animals being smuggled into this country. In addition, the authorities on board trains will be on the lookout for any breaches of our laws, including smuggled animals.

My noble friend Lord Soulsby said that 800 dogs and cats had been imported illegally between 1985 and 1993. I am advised that that figure is correct, but most of those were technical offences involving, for example, a licence not having been obtained in advance by the airline rather than smuggling as the term is generally understood.

Having considered the situation extremely carefully and having taken into account the heavy burden which our current arrangements place on those wishing to return to the United Kingdom from working or living abroad, we have reluctantly had to conclude that now is not the time to relax our quarantine arrangements. I should like to explain in a little more detail why we have reached that conclusion.

The Government have considered the situation very carefully, particularly in relation to countries without rabies and the European Community where progress has been made to eradicate rabies. This afternoon we have heard a great deal about the success of wildlife vaccination programmes in Europe. I commend that success, but I have to say that much remains to be done. It has to be recognised that, although progress has been made in the western part of the European Community, rabies is still relatively common in the eastern parts and there are difficulties, particularly in those areas bordering the old Iron Curtain.

My noble friend Lord Soulsby pointed to the differences between fox mediated rabies in Europe and dog mediated rabies in other parts of the world. It is undoubtedly true that the risk to human health in western Europe, even in those countries with rabies, is less than in those third world countries which have dog mediated rabies. But that is not to say that the risk is negligible and can be completely ignored.

My noble friend suggested that the fox adapted virus cannot affect dogs, cats or other animals or humans. But fox rabies can affect dogs and cats. In 1993 15 dogs and 43 cats were known to have died of rabies in the European Union. The origin of those cases must have been foxes. The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, concentrated on the dog/fox relationship. The greater risk is between cats and foxes, where the relationship can he much closer.

My noble friend Lord Soulsby also pointed to the rarity of human rabies in Europe. There have been five cases of human rabies in this country during the past 10 years. All were infected overseas. In 1991, a woman died of rabies in Leipzig, Eastern Germany, That was the first human fatality from rabies contracted in Europe in recent years. We cannot wish away the several thousand cases of rabies each year which occur in the European Community. Nor can we ignore the fact, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, that the United Kingdom has a very large number of urban foxes which could prove more difficult to control, if disease were to enter the United Kingdom, than the rural fox which makes up the bulk of the fox population on mainland Europe. The risk to human health in Western Europe may be small but the economic consequences of having to control endemic rabies are serious. The Government must take a cautious line.

We have also heard about the special arrangements that were introduced last year for commercially traded dogs and cats. I wish to make it clear that that is a very special arrangement which requires not only the animal to be vaccinated, blood tested, unambiguously identified by a microchip, imported in a specially approved vehicle and covered by the same automatic notification in the ANIMO system as other commercial livestock imports, but also that the animal must have been maintained in captivity on the holding of birth since birth and not come into contact with wildlife. That is something which commercial breeders who wish to make use of the arrangement have to do. I believe that, on reflection, noble Lords will see that very few pet cats and dogs will have spent the first nine months of their lives isolated from the outside world in this way. In effect, we have not abolished quarantine for these traded animals; we have merely transferred it from a post-import quarantine to a pre-export isolation system.

These new rules apply only to imports of commercially traded cats and dogs into the UK and Ireland from other member states of the European Community. As a result of its accession to the Community, Sweden, which has a high health status for rabies, is entitled to request the extension of these rules to imports into Sweden from the other member states. We believe that the Commission will soon make the necessary changes. This will involve some amendment of the rules for importing commercially traded cats and dogs into the UK and Ireland from Sweden, but the details have not yet been settled.

It has also been suggested that a combination of vaccination and blood testing alone, together with proper identification of the animal, will offer sufficient guarantees for pet cats and dogs entering Britain from Europe. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever. In a perfect world, that might well be true. However, one must recognise that even a positive reaction in the blood test does not necessarily prove that the animal will not develop clinical rabies. If an animal is exposed to the disease and then vaccinated, a blood titre will develop in response to the vaccination but the animal will still succumb to rabies. Vaccination of an animal which is already infected will not prevent the development of clinical disease. That is a technical but very important point.

It has also been suggested that a number of countries outside Europe which are completely rabies free have extremely tough import controls of their own and that we should allow pet animals from those countries to be imported without quarantine. That is a most difficult issue which was looked at by the Waterhouse Inquiry in 1970. That inquiry concluded that, although on paper there was a good case for relaxing the controls in these circumstances, to do so could increase the risk of fraudulent misrepresentation of animals and rabies being introduced by the back-door. I do not believe that during the past 25 years human nature has improved to such an extent that we can ignore the wise views put forward at that time. However, of course we shall continue to keep our import policy under review as regards third countries free of rabies.

The noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, suggested that quarantine does not keep rabies out. Ninety years experience shows exactly the opposite. The real question is whether there is an alternative that gives the same level of assurance. With effective enforcement—as with the Balai arrangements that I have outlined—there can be. But we must he sure that everybody complies, which implies border controls. Sweden has kept them but we do not have them.

The noble Viscount said that RSPCA inspectors were not admitted into quarantine kennels. Ministry vets are entitled to take others with them when they inspect quarantine kennels if they wish to do so. In any case, all animals in quarantine are inspected at least twice a week by a veterinary surgeon.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, made the point that some animals enter quarantine already having been vaccinated. Pre-vaccination is not a requirement for quarantine. Dogs and cats are vaccinated when they arrive at the quarantine kennel, and that is a mandatory arrangement.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, spoke about standard dog identification. I entirely agree with what he said. We need a universally accepted standard but, unfortunately, that does not yet exist. International agreement, brokered by the international standards organisation, is required.

The noble Viscount also referred to the possibility of national dog registration. He will not he surprised to hear me say that the Government remain opposed to a national dog registration scheme. It would be bureaucratic and difficult to enforce and the irresponsible owner would probably not register in the first place. Surely the way forward is to look at the specific problems related to dogs in society rather than to impose a bureaucratic registration system. These problems are best dealt with through the dog control legislation in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and elsewhere.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, asked whether our resistance to registration had increased the risks of the import of disease. I do not believe that it has. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was irrelevant to preventing the introduction of an animal incubating rabies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, asked why we do not adopt the system used in Sweden and Norway. Changes were introduced there last summer to allow the import of pet dogs and cats provided they had been vaccinated against rabies, that a blood test had shown that the vaccination was effective and that they were identified individually. The animals must go through the normal customs procedure on entering either country. It would not be justifiable to introduce into the United Kingdom new border controls solely for the purpose of inspecting pet dogs and cats. Nor is it clear whether the Swedish authorities will be able to keep their border controls in the long term.

My noble friend Lord Astor asked about service dogs from Cyprus and other rabies-free countries. The problem is that it would be impossible to be certain in every case about the true origin of a particular animal. There is also a serious risk of animals being substituted for the purpose of evading the regulations.

My noble friend asked also about the possibility of instituting special arrangements for service personnel. I am sympathetic to that suggestion, especially in the case of guide dogs. But the proposal cannot be looked at in isolation or taken out of context. There should be no change at present for pet or companion animals. The only change that has now been implemented is for traded animals, and they are subject to conditions which I believe pets could not meet.

I understand that the services are now insisting on microchipping and vaccination. If there is a change in the rules at any time in the future, that may well provide basic support for the changes.

My noble friend Lord Astor mentioned also sniffer dogs. Sniffer dogs can continue to be used in the Channel Tunnel, including at the French terminal. Quarantine standard kennelling is provided. Therefore, the dogs can continue to be used for the purpose for which they are trained; and of course, they are not pet animals.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, spoke about the veterinary standards which apply in other member states. We have no evidence to suggest that official veterinary services in other member states are any less competent than those in the UK. Occasional errors in veterinary certification have occurred but they have been taken up immediately and vigorously with the member state concerned. We are pressing for harmonised European standards of veterinary certification based on principles drawn up by the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe, in particular, that vets should certify only where they have personal knowledge of the relevant facts. If discrepancies are found, the matter is raised with the authority in the country of export and the Commission, if appropriate.

The Government have considered very carefully this whole issue. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, asked why we could not begin with alternative arrangements. We have begun and that is exactly what the Balai arrangements are, but we need to see how they work in practice. At this time we are not persuaded that the situation in Europe—although there have been a number of encouraging trends—has developed sufficiently to justify replacing the well-tried existing quarantine system. However, the position will be kept under review in the light of developments elsewhere in Europe and experience gained in the implementation of alternative systems both in relation to commercially traded animals in the United Kingdom and also to the new arrangements which were introduced last year in Sweden. The Chief Veterinary Officer has already visited Sweden to discuss the new arrangements and we shall follow events there closely.

I have taken note of the points put forward this afternoon. I assure your Lordships that we shall take into account what has been said in future consideration of the issue. The situation, particularly in Europe, is improving. As I emphasised, we monitor the situation very carefully. When it is safe to make changes the Government will do so, guided by the principle which I mentioned at the outset—that they will not support changes which increase the likelihood of rabies entering the United Kingdom.

5.44 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. A number of valuable points have been raised by all noble Lords. In particular, I am grateful for the perceptive thoughts of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. He referred to the need for good will and understanding from the general public on this important issue.

The noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, mentioned animal welfare, which is very important. He used compelling evidence to highlight the problems caused by limited travel for the deaf or blind and their guide dogs. Those people are restricted to this country and cannot travel abroad, as many other people can.

My noble friend Lord Kimball was more cautious in his attitude. He talked about microchipping and made a plea for one approved microchip. He raised the important issue of veterinary standards in certain European Union countries and the standard of veterinary education. We are aware of the problems which occur both as regards training and problems of certification, which was dealt with by the Minister.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, mentioned welfare and emphasised the stress caused to pet owners who wish to return to this country. She emphasised also the unique nature of fox rabies. She pleaded for greater faith in the arrangements for the importation of dogs in Norway and Sweden. She identified the problems for disabled people with working dogs.

My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever mentioned smuggling. Although comments on the extent of it have been rejected, a number of noble Lords seem to feel that it may well be on the increase. That poses serious problems. Like my noble friend Lord Kimball, my noble friend Lord Astor expressed caution about the introduction of new approaches, but he does not reject them.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, also referred to smuggling, as well as microchipping and veterinary standards in Europe. I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, rightly drew to our attention that the debate dealt with issues other than rabies, but because of time it was clearly not possible to discuss them at length. However, he re-emphasised the major problem of veterinary standards and veterinary education in some parts of the European Union.

Finally, I am grateful to the Minister for the sympathetic understanding that he showed over the distress caused to individuals wishing to return to this country because of quarantine for their pet dogs and cats. We clearly disagree about the risks involved in regard to quarantine and vaccination and the onward transmission of rabies from one species to another; for example, from foxes to dogs and from dogs to foxes.

I am disappointed, as I believe other noble Lords will be, that a first step is not to be made to recognise the need to abandon the need for quarantine. However, we should be encouraged by the Minister's comments that importation from third countries where rabies is absent will he kept under review. I welcome also his wider comment that the whole issue will be kept under review. I hope that that occurs sooner rather than later.

The subject has been well aired this afternoon, which illustrates the concerns of a wide range of individuals. I trust that noble Lords who contributed to today's debate will feel content that they have brought such issues to the attention of my noble friend the Minister. With those few comments, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.