HL Deb 13 November 1996 vol 575 cc929-32

2.45 p.m.

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect to complete the risk assessment of rabies and quarantine announced by the Chief Veterinary Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Royal Society of Medicine on 3rd May 1995.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, no such risk assessment was announced. The Chief Veterinary Officer indicated in May 1995 that if the arrangements for protecting the UK from rabies were to change an assessment of the risks would be carried out at the appropriate time. The Government are now looking again at these matters. If any changes were to be made these would have to take as their starting point the paramount need to protect the health of people and animals in this country.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Perhaps I may remind him that at the symposium on Rabies in a Changing World, held at the Royal Society of Medicine on 3rd May 1995, the Chief Veterinary Officer said: We will carry out our own risk assessment", and later, The Ministry of Agriculture is taking a positive line. We are listening and will carry out our own risk assessment analysis". Therefore, why has there been a change of stance since May 1995? Does the Minister agree that any sensible review of the existing policy on rabies and quarantine must be based on a proper and thorough risk assessment?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I believe that there is a slight misunderstanding of what the Chief Veterinary Officer said. Yes, there will be a risk assessment if and when there are proposals for change.

Viscount Monckton of Brenchley

My Lords, I hope that no risk will be taken. I have seen a man die from rabies; I have had to shoot my own dogs; and, with 200 others, I have had to undergo 12 daily injections in the stomach. As the disease is so close now in Belgium, will the Minister assure the House that every precaution will still be taken?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, yes, indeed.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, will the Minister assure us that no attention will be paid to the views of the present Governor of Hong Kong, who wishes to bring his dogs back to this country without quarantine when he leaves there in 1997?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, whatever other change we might make, we would have to take into account the proximity of Hong Kong and China; China being a country where we believe that dog rabies may well be endemic.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, is the Minister aware that two risk assessments have been carried out; the first by the Commission of European Communities in 1991 and the second in New Zealand in 1994, which is most revealing? Will he place both those documents in the Library for further consultation?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, if we have documents which are capable of being released and are public documents I shall certainly place them in the Library.

I am aware of those documents and of the fact that risk assessments have been carried out. However, the New Zealand assessment was of a theoretical vaccination procedure, which we agree can produce protection equivalent to quarantine. We are not interested in a theoretical procedure but in a practical procedure which would guarantee the same level of protection.

Lord St.John of Bletso

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a review of quarantine laws would be somewhat difficult for the Government ahead of the general election next year? Does he further agree that if the system of pet passports were to be introduced, and if as the British Veterinary Association has recommended, a system of electronic tagging were to be introduced, there would then be no justification for the quarantine laws not to be reviewed or to be totally scrapped?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, as I said, we are certainly reviewing the current regulations and we are doing so very much in the light of the technical advances to which the noble Lord referred. But the question is how it would or could be implemented in practice. There is also the matter of how we may achieve European Union agreement to any proposals which we may make which concern us and which are likely to take some time, even with the best will in the world.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that six months is a very long time in the life of a dog, equivalent to three-and-a-half years of our lives?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, indeed, I am well aware of the inconvenience and unhappiness caused to many people by the current quarantine regulations. But that must be set against the inconvenience and unhappiness which would be caused if we had rabies in this country.

Lord Hayhoe

My Lords, in view of the rather curious reference to the Governor of Hong Kong, is my noble friend aware that the Governor has made it absolutely clear that he will abide by the regulations in force when he returns to this country? It is monstrous to make any suggestion to the contrary in this House. Will my noble friend tell us how many animals in quarantine have been identified in the past 12 months or two years as actually having rabies?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am quite well aware that my right honourable friend will follow the customs of this country and will obey the law. I can also tell my noble friend that there have been no cases of rabies in quarantine in recent years.

Lord Carter

My Lords, it is rather curious that the Minister's answer to my first supplementary question put a gloss on the statement of the Chief Veterinary Officer which is not supported if one reads the whole discussion. Can I ask the Government to make it clear that they will not decide to review the policy and then have the risk assessment because that would be the wrong way round?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, a risk assessment must compare the current system with a new system. We must reach the point of having a proposed new system before we can have the risk assessment.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not the case that dogs, cats and foxes are not the only carriers of rabies? I read of a goat giving rabies to a child which it had nibbled. Also, there was the recent case of the bats which had rabies. Can the Minister explain why quarantine regulations apply to dogs and cats but not to any other animals?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, my understanding is that the quarantine regulations apply principally to pets and if the noble Countess had a pet goat, the regulations might apply to it.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble Lord satisfied with the conditions in the quarantine kennels because from what one reads in the press, many of them seem to be below standard?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I believe that the conditions in the quarantine kennels have been considerably exaggerated for the worse. There is a code of practice which we are very much encouraging and helping to supervise but as I am sure the noble Lord is aware, the legislation is deficient in that we are unable, under the law, to impose welfare requirements on quarantine kennels.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, when conducting a review, will my noble friend bear in mind the amount of smuggling which it is generally agreed is taking place? Sweden had approximately 300 or 400 animals coming into that country per year before it adopted the inoculation, tagging and blood-testing provisions. In the first year in which those provisions were in operation the figure rose to 6,000-plus animals coming in. That must indicate that there is a very high level of smuggling taking place.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I believe that smuggling will take place under any system because any system is likely to impose considerable cost and inconvenience on people who are bringing pets in and out of this country. That means that there will always be a temptation for people to smuggle.