§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they have made in the relaxation of the quarantine regulations, particularly those relating to the importation of dogs and cats into the United Kingdom.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is some 18 months since this House debated the issue of quarantine and the importation of dogs and cats into the United Kingdom, since when important changes in the status of rabies in domestic animals and wildlife have occurred in the European Union. For example, vaccination of wildlife has progressively reduced the number of rabid animals in the European Union in foxes and other animals, including dogs, cats, sheep, horses and indeed man. There have been improvements in diagnostic tests and procedures. Sweden has adopted a vaccination policy for dogs entering that country instead of quarantine and New Zealand has conducted an important risk assessment analysis. Indeed, there has been a growing tide of public opinion for a reconsideration and modification of the present regulations.
§ There are two organisations in which I must declare an interest. One is Passports for Pets, in which I have an indirect interest in that I assist with its scientific commentary, and the other is Vets in Support of Change, a document to which I was a signatory and which many of your Lordships will have already received. In both these cases reconsideration is asked in the knowledge that rabies is a fearful, horrible disease that kills 35,000 humans per year globally. It places a very heavy burden of responsibility on those pressing for change to be sure that freedom from rabies which we enjoy in the United Kingdom is not compromised in any way by the changes.
§ What then are the changes and issues believed to be consistent with the preservation of our rabies-free status? First, no changes are proposed for dogs and cats coming from countries where dog mediated rabies is endemic and where control measures are deemed to be inadequate. Those include countries in the Far East, Africa, South America and Central America. Animals 1168 coming from those countries would still be required to enter quarantine for six months and would also be vaccinated.
§ Secondly, the changes proposed are based on the following principles and concepts: animals from rabies-free countries pose no threat and should be admitted without quarantine or vaccination provided they are properly and unequivocally identified, preferably by microchip, and have documented evidence of residence in the country of origin for at least six months or since birth and would normally arrive in this country direct from that country; vaccination when performed correctly with an approved vaccine, of which there are three, is considered to be 100 per cent. effective. There has been no documented case of failure of vaccination in dogs in the European Union in the past 15 years. In any case, the efficacy of vaccination against rabies can be assessed by a blood test, when the antibody levels reach a required level which is consistent with protection against rabies.
§ A period of at least four months should be allowed to elapse after vaccination before admittance to the country in order to guard against rabies developing in an animal which has been vaccinated during the incubation period. Unequivocal identification is a necessity and is best performed by microchip. There is now an agreed international standard, published by the International Organisation for Standardisation and used by ANIMO, the acronym for Animal Movements, for the importation of dogs and cats under the Balai Directive and the importation of livestock.
§ Certification as to origin is essential. Veterinary certification must be reliable and is considered reliable under the ANIMO system. With animals coming from the European Union we already accept veterinary certification. Proof of residence is clearly a requirement. It is, however, the nature of rabies in the European Union that is particularly important. No dog-mediated rabies exists in the European Union. The dog strain occurs in the Far East, Pakistan, Africa and South America. In the European Union we have only the fox strain. Bat rabies is of little consequence. Foxes constitute the major reservoir.
§ Fox rabies can occur in dogs, cats and other domestic animals such as sheep, cattle and horses. In other than dogs and cats the infection is regarded as an end infection. In other words, the infected animals are the end hosts and are unable to transmit the infection to other species, and so naturally there is no onward transmission. That is why horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and so on are allowed into this country without quarantine. However, in Belgium and France it is said that there is more danger of a human getting rabies from a rabid horse or bovine than from dogs and cats. That is an indication of how successful the control of dog rabies has been.
§ There is an increasing body of scientific opinion that the dog is also an end host. Fox rabies is less infective for dogs, and dogs infected with fox rabies are less infective for foxes and other dogs. There is not a single known incidence of a dog infected with the fox strain infecting another dog or indeed another fox. Although 1169 dogs and cats infected with the fox strain can transmit rabies to man—hence the necessity for vaccination—the disease will not spread to other animals through the dog infected with the fox strain. Simply put, with respect to our own fox populations, the only realistic source of rabies is through the importation of a rabid fox. That would not normally happen and therefore it would be a fox that was brought in illegally.
§ Given all these facts about the nature of the rabies virus in the European Union and the safeguards of vaccination, the proof of response to vaccine and so on, we believe that we can safely remove the quarantine regulations from animals that meet the rigorous requirements within the European Union, and that includes animals from the United Kingdom whose owners include blind people and deaf people and also tourists who wish to take their animals overseas. They would be able to return without those animals going into quarantine.
§ What these proposals do not do is to eliminate smuggling. To use vaccination instead of quarantine would reduce smuggling, as has occurred in Sweden. At present there are about 100 notified cases of smuggling per year in this country. They are probably due to inadvertence or even ignorance. However, those are not the dogs and cats that are dangerous. The important ones are those that are being smuggled in illegally—possibly for a fee of, we believe, about £500. Under the Swedish system, which costs about £130 to £150 to the owner of the dog, they have also found that smuggling is much reduced.
§ Perhaps I may summarise by saying that we believe that we are out of step with the rest of the European Union—a situation which is not unusual, of course. The proposed new approach will benefit the health of humans, animals and wildlife by reducing smuggling and hence the importation of animals of unknown health status. It will allow greater freedom of movement of many groups. It will reduce the trauma of prolonged separation of the owner and his pet. It will also reduce the cost and expense of importation.
§ I believe that these various points are valid for a relaxation of the quarantine regulations. I hope that the rabies control review now taking place will lead to a swift risk assessment. I look forward with interest to the results of that review. But I also hope that a start will be made in relaxing the regulations where there is no risk whatever as regards the importation of animals.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Baroness Wharton
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, for introducing this debate. As noble Lords will know, the noble Lord raised the question of a possible relaxation of quarantine controls on 15th March 1995 in response to the report of the Select Committee on Agriculture in 1994. I, along with other speakers tonight, took part in that debate. This time I hope that we shall have a more positive response from Her Majesty's Government. We all want to continue to live in a rabies-free country. The difference between now and 40 years ago is that we have 1170 developed inactivated vaccines which are safe in both dogs and cats. We have also acquired a great deal more knowledge about the different strains of the rabies virus and the effects when transferred from one species to another.
As the noble Lord said, the rabies problem in Europe has always been in the fox population and these animals are unlikely to be imported. The infected zone in western Europe, thanks to continual immunising programmes, has now shrunk to about 130 square miles comprising north-west Germany, the southern part of Belgium, Luxembourg and north-east France. Rabies, contrary to the belief of many, is clearly declining both geographically and in the number of outbreaks within the European Union. Obviously, to the east and beyond, as the noble Lord said, there are problems and there is no possibility of lifting the quarantine on animals from these areas.
Now that we have a safe vaccine, backed up with blood testing, which provides an effective protection against rabies, and microchipping readily available with an established ISO standard so that every chip can be read by every reader, there seems to be no need for us to continue with six months' quarantine. That could now be viewed as a back-up procedure rather than the primary protection that most people still believe it to be.
When I opened the British Veterinary Association conference in 1995 in Winchester, I made a plea that we should shift our stance on quarantine, even knowing that at that time the BVA was not supportive of a change. Afterwards several delegates came up to me confirming that view despite all the advances made in trying to eradicate the disease in the EU. I am glad to see that that view is now shifting. Vets in Support of Change put out a paper, following their conference on 16th October. It was signed by the noble Lord and six eminent members of the veterinary profession. I hope we all have a copy of it. Many of us agree that it makes a very strong case for change. After all, quarantine regulations do not apply to cattle, goats, and horses, but they too are vulnerable, and the Balai directive allows dogs and cats to be commercially traded provided they are vaccinated and blood tested and accompanied by the correct paperwork. Yet companion animals which would appear to be the least at risk are obliged to endure six months' of deprivation, to say nothing of their owners. We all know that bonding takes place between owner and pet and sometimes the consequences of quarantine can be awful.
This story was told to me by a veterinary friend who is one of the signatories to Vets for Change and who has a special interest in the training of hearing dogs. A hearing dog and its owner were flying from Southampton, I believe, to the Channel Islands when bad weather diverted the plane to Cherbourg. However, soon after touching down in Cherbourg the plane got the all-clear for it to return to the Channel Islands. I would like to stress that no one disembarked and no doors were opened while the plane was on the French runway. Nevertheless the specially trained hearing dog was promptly removed on landing back in Jersey and put into six months' quarantine, despite not having set foot in France. Quite frankly, that is officialdom gone mad. 1171 It certainly makes a mockery of the law. I doubt whether any of the officials who dealt with that case gave a thought to the months of valuable training given to the dog or to the fact that after six months' quarantine it would have to be re-trained, not to mention the loss suffered by its owner who depended on the dog for its skills.
Pet Plan sent out a questionnaire to all its clients. They were asked if they would like to see quarantine abolished. Fifty per cent. said yes provided that there were safeguards. Secondly, they were asked if the situation should remain as it is. Only 22 per cent. agreed. Thirdly, they were asked whether there should be some form of quarantine. Twenty eight per cent. suggested up to one month with safeguards in place. The former owner of Pet Plan felt that the responses represented an overwhelming vote for change by the informed pet owner. Passports for Pets and Vets for Change both draw attention to the fact that Australia and New Zealand have modified their regulations. Dogs and cats coming from rabies-free countries are quarantined for 30 days while in Japan there is no quarantine.
It is now clear that all major animal welfare bodies are moving towards accepting the eventual abolition of quarantine for pets from the EU and other rabies-free countries. The RSPCA too has moved its position in the past few months. While on the subject of the RSPCA, I would point out that not all kennels are especially well run. RSPCA inspectors cannot automatically gain access even when they have reason to believe that all is not well. There is no legal obligation regarding the welfare of the occupants, only guidelines. The statutory obligation is that the accommodation be secure. The NCDL has been campaigning for the statutory inclusion of welfare considerations in the quarantine regulations.
Finally, the Ministry of Agriculture claims that it would be difficult and expensive to set up a system along Swedish lines. I cannot accept that. If other countries can implement changes, surely we can. I really do believe that the UK has remained rabies free, not because of quarantine laws, but despite them, for the past 25 years.
§ 7.57 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharples
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Soulsby, in initiating today's debate, has put emotion on one side, which, in view of all the articles read and letters received, was not easy. I hope to follow his example.
Is not the system of quarantine now based on dogma and not on the best scientific data available? With the advances made in the area of prevention, vaccination, identification by tattoo or microchip, as mentioned by the noble Lord, and the incubation period before any animal is allowed into Sweden or Norway, for example, is that not sufficient to silence any sceptics? Why should we not follow their lead?
It is admitted here that the smuggling of pets is on the increase, and that is surely where the danger of rabies exists. As the noble Baroness has said, it is now two years since the House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture decided unanimously that 1172 quarantine restrictions should be lifted subject to various safeguards, which I have already mentioned, yet until very recently there has been no move by Her Majesty's Government seriously to reconsider their approach. In reply to a Question I asked on 17th July the Minister stated that Sweden had administrative difficulties and that smuggling there remained a problem. As I believe my noble friend Lord Soulsby said, I understand now that both those situations have been virtually resolved. Tonight I trust that when the Minister comes to reply he will exhibit a positive approach and take the advice of independent organisations which have produced the scientific evidence which vets require.
§ 7.59 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Bletso
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, who I know has for some time been an ardent supporter of the campaign not just for passports for pets, but also for identity cards for us, the two-legged creatures.
Last Wednesday, in a supplementary question to the Starred Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on rabies and quarantine regulations, I jested that it would be difficult for the Government to consider a review of the quarantine laws ahead of next year's general election. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, answered that the Government were reviewing the current regulations, but could give no clear time horizons about when the review would take place. It was therefore a great surprise and most heartening to read on the front page of yesterday's Sunday Telegraph that the Prime Minister is now backing the campaign for a reform of our tough anti-rabies laws; and, furthermore, is considering including such a reform in the Conservative Party manifesto.
Against that background, it is opportune that the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, with his extremely distinguished background as a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, has introduced the debate. The noble Lord gave an extremely convincing and expert overview of the current situation and the risks, making a strong and justified call for the relaxation of the quarantine laws.
In my allotted six minutes, I should like to touch on a few of what I believe to be the key issues. On 14th October, Michael Hornsby, the agricultural correspondent of The Times, aptly headed his article on the subject with the words,Expensive and cruel—or a vital a safeguard? Britain's strict defence against rabies arouses fierce debate".So, what are the raw facts and figures that bring about such harsh and fierce debate?
Many believe that the current regulations are draconian. However, the reality has been that Britain is one of the few countries in the world to have escaped the rabies menace. I understand that the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is to speak very much in favour of the status quo. Nevertheless, with advances in science and technology, there are now alternatives to quarantine which are just as safe, such as the passports for pets scheme. Vaccination and blood tests give the same guarantees.
1173 Furthermore, we have a rabies-free clean record despite the fact that, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharpies, have mentioned, many pets have been smuggled into Britain to avoid the quarantine laws. In fact, some commentators believe that for every dog and cat that goes through quarantine, another is smuggled into the country. In addition, apart from dogs and cats, many other potential rabies carriers enter Britain every day.
There has been much publicity about the condition of many quarantine kennels and calls for regulations to allow the RSPCA access to those kennels to monitor pets' welfare. Although there have been many complaints about the conditions in several quarantine kennels, the mortality rate of pets dying in quarantine is relatively low. A code of welfare practice has been introduced—which is to be welcomed—setting out minimum standards for kennel owners. Sadly, however, many pets come out of quarantine in a bad state of health—not only physically but mentally. A key statistic on quarantine kennels is that there have been no proven cases among any of the 200,000 dogs and cats that have been imported into Britain in the past 25 years. We are a nation of pet lovers and there is no denying that six months of solitary confinement is an extremely harsh regime for any domestic pet.
The British Veterinary Association believes that it would be wrong to abandon quarantine until electronic tagging is perfected to ensure tamper-proof identification of individual pets and accurate recording of their rabies jabs. Concerns have been expressed about how the proposed alternative protections could be implemented in practice. I have always found it extraordinary that in a country with such strict quarantine laws there is no compulsory dog licence. That may be an administrative nightmare to co-ordinate and police; but can the Minister comment on whether the Government have any plans to reintroduce such a licence? As noble Lords are aware, in 1994 the Select Committee on Agriculture in another place unanimously recommended that the passports for pets system be introduced.
With so much public support and with calls from the blind and deaf who rely on their dogs, together with support from military personnel and diplomats serving abroad, surely there is no denying the recent statement by Vets in Support of Change that,the present laws are an anachronism and are indefensible on scientific grounds".
§ 8.6 p.m.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior for introducing this debate and for an extremely good speech. I do not think that the rest of us put together have my noble friend's knowledge and expertise in the subject.
I must apologise to my noble friend Lord Lucas: I may not be able to be present until the very end of the debate as I had promised to make another speech this evening somewhere else and had not realised that the debate on local government would go on for so long. 1174 Having served on the Front Bench, I know how irritating it is when noble Lords say that, so once again I apologise to him.
The first question that we must ask is whether the quarantine arrangements are really necessary and whether their repeal and the introduction of a licensing system would put at risk the health of either the people or animals of this country. The answer to that question must be no because, as we have heard, vaccination works. Even the Government agree that it can provide protection equivalent to that given by quarantine. We also now know that verification works. Microchip technology means that a chip can be inserted into an animal which can then be tested to ascertain whether it has been vaccinated with the right vaccine and whether all the other safeguards that have been mentioned have been applied.
The second question is whether smuggling would increase if the quarantine regulations were repealed. I think that the answer has to be no. All the evidence from Europe shows that smuggling has not increased. We know that the costs of the vaccination procedure are not all that high. Indeed, they are much less than the cost of keeping a dog in quarantine kennels for six months.
Last week in answer to a Question my noble friend said:any system is likely to impose considerable cost and inconvenience on people who are bringing pets in and out of this country".— [Official Report, 13/11/96: col. 932.]As I do not understand what could be more costly or more inconvenient than the present system, I do not think that the argument that smuggling would increase is valid.
I do not propose to talk about kennels and the state of some of them. It is rather like debating prisons in this country; they are never good enough. What we are debating here is being sent to prison or, in this case, being sentenced to six months of solitary confinement.
I am optimistic because in answer to that Question last week my noble friend said that the Government are reviewing the current laws. In fact, he said at col. 929:The Government are now looking again at these matters".That is a chink of light. This evening we must all encourage my noble friend in his endeavours to push at what I hope is not a closed door. However, my noble friend also said something that rather alarmed me, stating that any change would have to have the agreement of the European Union. If there is anything to make some of your Lordships greater Euro-sceptics than they already are it is the argument that somehow this will fall foul of European regulations. There are very few European regulations in relation to this matter. Although my noble friend is quite right in saying that certain matters have to be agreed in Europe, I hope that they will not be regarded as barriers but open doors to be pushed at. I believe that there is a valid case here.
I declare an interest as a keen foxhunter. I have always been concerned that any repeal may damage foxhunting. If foxhunting were to be threatened I would not be for this proposal. However, I am convinced—those who are expert in the matter agree—that there is no danger to foxhunting in this country. Indeed, there 1175 is more danger to foxhunting in this country from rabid Members of another place who try to ban it than from rabid foxes. It may be that even the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is one of those rabid Members who wish to ban it. I am sure that he is not because I know him to be a sporting man. I must also declare an interest in that I am the owner of dogs. If the law were repealed I would find it rather expensive. I have managed to curb the aspirations of her Ladyship to foreign travel by asking, "Who is to look after the dogs?". Of course, if this measure is passed, we will have to take the dogs with us and thereby incur huge expense, but that is our problem.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord St. John, said that he thought that I would speak against repeal. He will know by now that that is not so. He said that in the article in the Daily Telegraph it was suggested that this might appear in the manifesto of the Conservative Party. If it appeared in the manifesto it would not only make the winning of the election a likelihood but guarantee success.
I should like to put a question to my noble friend. I do not know whether he has the answer with him this evening. If not, perhaps he will write to me. If the Government were able to produce a consultation paper and the consultation process showed that there was good reason to change the law in this country, would it have to be done by Act of Parliament or could it be done by order or under the deregulation initiative? I believe that your Lordships now know where I stand on this issue.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Lord Cochrane of Cults
My Lords, first I thank my noble friend for his very clear explanation of rabies, its mode of transmission, and so on. Nothing less could have been expected from a man of his distinction in his chosen field: veterinary science. He is a great ornament to that profession so it seems to me what he proposes makes admirable sense.
However, it would be remiss of me if, before going any further, I did not point out that the regulations and law that your Lordships' House is presently considering were introduced in the teeth of Cabinet opposition by the grandfather of my noble friend Lord Long. One of the problems is that the perfection of his arrangements for the control of rabies are so successful that they have become almost written in stone and as such unchangeable. I sympathise with my noble friend, but time goes on and, believe it or not, science advances. We now have a situation in which the scientific procedures for ascertaining the presence of rabies, protecting against it and preventing its spread are a vast improvement on what they were some 70-odd years ago, when the grandfather of my noble friend took such wise steps to control what was then seen to be a very hazardous disease.
It is momentarily interesting to realise that in the first edition of Scouting for Boys published in 1908 some rather alarming advice was provided by Baden-Powell for dealing with a mad dog. Time does not allow me—nor do I believe it to be wise—to go into the details, except that the punchline refers to a well-aimed kick. In those days, as a matter of course everybody wore what 1176 are now known as bovver boots, or something of the kind. The example he gave of a rabid dog being pinned to the ground by the neck by a man wielding a pitchfork illustrates the ferocity of the dog and the way the problem was dealt with so many years ago before the present rules were introduced.
In passing, the 1977 edition of Black's Medical Dictionary—which, after all, is now quite out of date—remarked that there had been no proven case in the United Kingdom of anybody having caught rabies from a United Kingdom source since 1911. I do not believe that at the present time there is anyone in the Chamber who was even alive then.
In his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on Wednesday, my noble friend Lord Lucas appeared to differ a little from earlier Written Answers given in another place as to the extent to which the Government were considering revision of the rules. Perhaps some explanation for that is provided by the fact that my noble friend used the seven-letter "P" word, which is the great current excuse for doing nothing or finding reasons for not doing something. Before people's imaginations become overheated, I point out that the word is "paramount". It is used as an excuse that this, that or the other consideration is paramount, and I recall pointing out in connection with another subject that if there was a desire to make safety in this field paramount it was better not to have any of it at all. Of course, that is not a practical solution. Also we have the mystery of the missing brief. I hope that it will not be a three-pipe problem for the current successor of 222b Baker Street, but there appears to be a slight dichotomy of view within the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Agriculture Committee of another place has produced a comprehensive regulatory framework, which I suggest is a totally practical method of replacing the present regulations and laws with which we are now lumbered. This accords well with the advice of my noble friend Lord Soulsby and his distinguished colleagues. I believe that we should get on with it, remembering that the present regulations are full of loopholes and anomalies. As an earlier speaker has said, all mammals can get rabies. Contrary to what my noble friend has just said, my vet tells me that humans can get rabies from horses, although it is extremely difficult. (I am glad to see that my noble friend agrees with that). This country imports a large number of herbivorous animals which can carry rabies. The only difference is that the herbivores do not go mad but dribble most appallingly. That can be mistaken by the uninitiated for foot and mouth until one looks at their feet.
The present regulations represent a major impediment to tourism. I declare an interest. I have been engaged in this matter for many years. When the ancestor of my noble friend produced these regulations there were about four cross-Channel trips made from Dover per day. I understand that today there are 85 such ferry sailings. One can see the extent to which the trade has grown. That in turn should be a further consideration. I have the greatest admiration for my noble friend's proposals. They are worthy of consideration and early implementation.
§ 8.19 p.m.
My Lords, I am fearful of being accused of over-activity. I have already addressed your Lordships' House several times this Session. However, I believe that this is an important issue. Unlike many noble Lords, unfortunately at present I do not have a dog. I have yet to hear any scientific argument against the proposed alternatives to quarantine. The fact that this country has not had rabies is not a scientific argument. I have heard plenty of arguments against quarantine, many of which have been very well presented this evening. If the Minister or his department has some scientific argument against the scheme I shall be interested to hear it.
Like the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, I should like to draw the attention of your Lordships to the position of members of the Armed Forces who serve overseas. This is particularly relevant to many servicemen who have to change locations every two or three years. Such a situation makes it unfair to introduce a dog into the family, both for the dog and the children. Growing up with pets is an important part of a child's upbringing.
I should like to take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, on one point: the rabies-free area. I do not claim any greater knowledge than the noble Lord—in fact, far less. But this is a point of practicality. If we were to have a relaxation of the rules, we should still have rock-solid defence. That means that we must have antibody testing, passports and microchips, whether or not the dog or cat comes from a rabies-free area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, mentioned kennels. In view of the way the debate is going, kennel operators should perhaps review their business plans. Will the Minister explain why the kennel operators do not always welcome RSPCA inspections? Whether or not the quarantine rules are to be continued, we must be confident that the kennels are being operated properly. In conclusion, I support the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ The Earl of Liverpool
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior for giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter. I, too, have an interest to declare: my French wife and I are owners of a dog which lives in France. He has been properly inoculated against rabies, but we are unable to get him over here to live with us because we are not prepared to place him in quarantine kennels for six months. We have the directly inverse problem of that mentioned by my noble friend Lord Astor, because the result is that we spend an inordinate amount of money travelling backwards and forwards on Le Shuttle, succeeding only in upsetting ourselves and our dog when the inevitable separation comes. However, that is better than the torment through which he would be put in a quarantine kennel.
We are an animal and pet-loving country—a trait for which I am happy to say we are known throughout the world—so how is it that we continue to condone a system which forces an individual—British citizen or otherwise—coming to this country with a pet to place 1178 that animal in a concrete prison for six months without access to grass or the other natural elements so essential to animal welfare? As other noble Lords have said, the RSPCA is refused access to quarantine kennels. Quarantine vets have absolute discretion to deal with animals in the kennels without recourse to their owner. What is most important—this was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton—a representative from MAFF visits the kennels once a quarter but his concern is just security and not the welfare of the animals.
Over 100 pets die needlessly each year in cold, cement, isolation cells. Let us consider the distress and anger that that must cause the owners of the pets when they know that advances in medical science make it unnecessary to cause that suffering.
The all-party Select Committee of another place which presented its report and recommendations in January 1995 came to the unanimous conclusion that the existing quarantine law should be changed and replaced by a safer and better system—I refer to tagging and passports. I have read its detailed report which has been mentioned previously in your Lordships' House. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I quote briefly one passage. In the conclusions it states:The introduction of a suitable system of controls through vaccination is emphatically not a relaxation of Britain's defence against rabies. We would never support a change which increased the likelihood of rabies entering the UK. In fact we consider that a system such as we propose would effectively decrease that likelihood, not least because the costs of the new procedure, a small fraction of the expense of quarantine, would no longer provide an incentive for many to smuggle their animals into this country".I raised that point about smuggling last week on the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I should be interested to know whether my noble friend the Minister would like to reconsider his answer to that, because I believe that smuggling would decrease dramatically if we introduced the inoculation and tagging system.
I shall refer briefly to our servicemen and their families—a point mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. Many servicemen are required to serve overseas. They consider a family pet to be an essential stabilising element in the upheaval process. The trauma caused to both pet and family by quarantine can be deeply distressing. What adds insult to injury is that the serviceman is required to pay the bill which can be anything from £1,500 to £2,000, and no assistance is currently given by the MoD to meeting that cost.
Finally, I shall turn to the damage that current legislation is causing to UK plc. Recently, I met a well-known Canadian businessman who has two dogs. He and his family are very attached to them and believe in the adage that a dog is a man's best friend. He wished to come to live here and to establish a business in Great Britain which would have been capitalised at over £200 million. But he did not go ahead with his plans. Why? The answer is of course that he just could not bear to subject his dogs to a six-month sentence in the quarantine kennels. It would be folly to assume that he is the only overseas businessman with those views.
The efficacy of inoculation, blood testing and tagging is unquestioned. We must move forward, and, like Sweden, adopt that system as quickly as possible. 1179 I welcome the review currently being undertaken by the Government. I have been doing a little scoring during the debate. It is interesting to note that of eight speakers, we have so far eight people in favour of change and none against.
I believe that the great majority of the British public sees the current law for what it is—overreacting, Dickensian and discredited. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can give me some assurance that we will not have to wait long for the law to change for the better.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Baroness Rawlings
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior for initiating once again a debate on this subject that affects so many people in this country. Rabies, la rage, la rabbia—the word alone evokes in people a fear of death. Understandably, a disease called hydrophobia from the Greek—a horror of water, inability to swallow, owing to a contraction of the throat—is enough to scare anyone. "Rabid" is described in the dictionary as "raging", "fanatical". That could well be used to describe some humans who have not even been attacked by a rabid animal.
It is hard to believe that for over five years as a Member of the European Parliament, at practically every constituency meeting, the subject was brought up. As an MEP, one's postbag is huge—easily 50 to 100 letters a day, a great number of which concern pets. Sadly, I do not own a pet at the moment. I am also aware that there are many people—dare I say?—who are so politically incorrect that they still feel like W.C. Fields who said:Anybody who hates children and dogs can't be all bad".The subject we are debating arouses as much passion as any European debate. We would all agree that we must keep Britain rabies free and continue to work for its extinction in Europe, as I wrote in my election address. But what is the most efficient and humane way? There are the technical facts, and there is the humane factor. I start with a few facts. Quarantine is not responsible for keeping Britain rabies free. We have heard that. It is 26 years since a rabid animal was found in quarantine. Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that scientific methods of countering rabies by an oral vaccine are a proven success. Incidentally, no one has died of rabies contracted in the European Union for more than 30 years.
There is no doubt that rabies still constitutes one of the major perceived threats to human health with estimates of some 35,000 deaths annually, mainly in India, Pakistan and other Asian, African and American countries—none, I repeat, in Europe.
There are two distinctive strains of rabies, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Soulsby: one in foxes and one in dogs. The former is far less dangerous and does not exist in the UK as foxes cannot swim or penetrate the Tunnel. The latter does not exist either because travelling pets are now vaccinated.
Secondly, there is the humane side. Pets in quarantine are not allowed to be handled. Owners are allowed to go to see their pets but not to touch them. There must 1180 be no cuddles because they are in quarantine. Let us remember that six months in a dog's life is the equivalent to more than three years of a human's. Many pets die in quarantine, quite understandably, from stress and related illnesses. That is plain cruelty and inhumane treatment of animals. Therefore, pet owners are tempted to smuggle rather than to allow that torture or to bear the very heavy costs.
What rules or laws do we need to keep Britain rabies free? Perhaps I may support a few suggestions which have been mentioned. As my noble friend Lady Sharples, in her Question on quarantine on 17th July mentioned, Norway and Sweden used to have quarantine but now have pioneered the pet passport system. However, there are essential requirements. The pets must be identified by a tattoo or microchip. The animal must be vaccinated with an approved inactivated vaccine. The animal must have resided in a European Union country for the preceding 12 months. At least four months after vaccination, a blood sample must be taken. Quarantine should still exist for animals which fail to test or which come from a non-European country which is not rabies free.
I fully support the Prime Minister by backing the reform of Britain's tough anti-rabies laws and I very much hope that reforms will be included in our manifesto. My right honourable friend Douglas Hogg deserves support too for having his department float the idea of a reform earlier this year.
Perhaps I may quote part of a recent letter written from Madrid and which appeared in Country Life headed, "Quarantine, a cruel farce". The letter states:Our Staffordshire bull terrier made her final journey to the vet last weekend, so not for her the human equivalent of three years in the slammer, a sordid cage with no remission. She had, like all dogs in Spain, had rabies shots and an identity chip implanted in her shoulder. As in most other European countries, the only instances of rabies in Spain during the past 25 years have been as a result of human importation or laboratory accidents.Nobody, least of all dog owners, wants to import rabies. Recently there was a case of rabies in the UK, imported in the blood stream of an unfortunate human returning from Africa. Should we put humans in cages for six months or should we confront, like many other countries, the unholy alliance of certain vets and kennel owners and end the farcical cruelty of quarantine?I am the tenth speaker in favour of the Motion. In case your Lordships are depressed, perhaps I may tell a short story. There was a little old lady with her knitting and a young man sitting in a railway compartment on their way to Norfolk. From time to time the little old lady threw cups out of the window. The young man finally summed up the courage and asked, "Why are you doing that?" "To keep the elephants away, of course". "But surely, my friend, there are no elephants in Norfolk?" "Exactly so! That is why I must keep doing it".
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, we must be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, for asking this Question this evening which has produced a great deal of wisdom and knowledge, even though, as the 1181 noble Lord, Lord Cochrane of Cults, goes out of the door, one must comment that his numeracy may not be as great as it should be.
As has been mentioned by some noble Lords, we had a preview of this debate in Question Time last Wednesday when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked a Question. On reading those exchanges, two matters caught my attention in particular. First, the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, got rather hot under the collar about what he thought was a suggestion that the Governor of Hong Kong might not abide by the regulations in force when he returns to this country. In fact, no one made such a suggestion nor do I believe that anyone in your Lordships' House would do so.
The second and by far the most important matter was the admission or the information from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that no welfare requirements can be imposed on quarantine kennels. That has been repeated several times in this debate.
That being so, we find ourselves in a position which is in some ways easy for the Government because, whatever their views on the necessity of quarantine, they must recognise that there is a need for legislation of some kind. Although the Minister expressed his belief that the conditions in quarantine kennels have been considerably exaggerated for the worse, nevertheless he and other noble Lords made it clear that there are instances where those conditions are not satisfactory and that again is a matter which has been repeated this evening.
Therefore, if we care for the welfare of those animals, we must bring in legislation either to enable those conditions to be controlled or to make them unnecessary by changing the whole system, particularly in view of the widespread conviction that there are now other and more humane ways of controlling rabies and probably more efficient ways too. The Minister suggested that there will always be a temptation to smuggle, and I grant that point, but that temptation must surely be greater under a system where the pet in question must spend one-twentieth of its life in quarantine than one under which it merely has to have a series of injections and be tagged and the cost is much less.
I brought a dog back from Hong Kong. It is fair to say that it was neurotic before it went into quarantine but it was far more neurotic when it came out. One would like to spare animals and their owners that kind of experience.
In view of the fact that the Government have to take action one way or the other, is it not time that they took the best advice available and acted decisively on it? We know that they are looking into the matter. That is the first step. On these Benches, we should be the last to ask the Government to act against a precautionary principle for which I find myself having to argue so often in debates in your Lordships' House. But we ask the Government not just to accept the status quo, against which they argue and act so vehemently in other areas, but to establish 1182 the facts and to act accordingly. They may find that the advice and the findings of the Fifth Report of the Agriculture Committee of another place, which has already been quoted, are extremely helpful in terms of exactly what to do about it.
§ 8.39 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, for tabling this Question. This is a very sensitive subject. There is an understandable caution regarding any dramatic change in the existing regime and the equally understandable fear of a dreadful disease like rabies. My noble friend Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, who, I believe, was the Minister who set up the Waterhouse Committee in the late 1970s, asked me to say that if he had not had a previous speaking engagement he would have liked to speak in the debate and would exercise a word of caution.
We all agree about one thing: it is crucial that the UK continues to protect its status as a rabies-free country. Therefore, it is essential that any change to the existing system must be shown clearly to produce at least the same degree of protection which we now have and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Cochrane, will not mind my saying that the precautionary principle should be paramount. All the technical points have been made; there is no need to repeat them. We have all received most persuasive briefing from vets in support of change and from Passports for Pets.
My colleague in the other place, Mr. Elliot Morley, who speaks for the Labour Party on animal welfare, made, while emphasising our concern to maintain our current rabies-free status, a number of very constructive suggestions for full consultation with interested parties on the following matters. Because of the lack of time, I shall paraphrase his suggestions. He says that we should consider stronger safeguards than those recommended by the Select Committee in the other place including a tighter requirement for import licences, restricted points of entry and powers to hold animals in quarantine pending blood tests if there is a doubt about their identity.
Mr. Morley also suggests a phased approach to the gradual lifting of quarantine which would have to be based upon a full inquiry by MAFF into all the procedures to be put into place and the effectiveness of other countries' schemes. Such an inquiry would obviously involve full consultation with all interested parties, the implementation perhaps of a full trial scheme between the UK and other countries with rabies-free status and an agreement on a European standard for microchip technology.
The Government's stance is, to say the least, a little unclear. Several speakers referred to the Question that I asked last week about the status of the risk assessment that had been announced, I thought, by the chief veterinary officer of the Ministry of Agriculture to the Royal Society of Medicine on 3rd May 1995. Noble Lords will no doubt remember that, in reply, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that,no such risk assessment was announced".1183 The noble Lord added later:Yes, there will be a risk assessment if and when there are proposals for change"—[Official Report, 13/11/96; col. 929.].I found that hard to understand because, as your Lordships will know, it is clear that the chief veterinary officer did say in the "General Discussion" reported in Rabies in a Changing World:We will carry out our own risk assessment…The Ministry of Agriculture is taking a positive line. We are listening and will carry out our own risk assessment analysis".Indeed, we all find this a little hard to understand. For example, we have Mr. David Willetts in the other place admitting that when the chairman of the Select Committee says that he wants advice, he does not want it and, presumably, when the chief veterinary officer says that they will carry out their own risk assessment, that actually means that there will be no risk assessment. I am beginning to feel that a qualification in linguistic philosophy might help me to understand such matters.
However, we do have the Written Answers referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cochrane of Cults, from Mrs. Angela Browning, the Parliamentary Secretary in another place. She said on 6th November:We are now looking at the matter, taking account of the most recent information-.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/11/96; co1.488.]Then, on 12th November, she said that possible identification and vaccination systems,are being considered as part of the review of rabies controls announced in my reply of 5 November 1996" [Official Report, Commons, 12/11/96; co1.72.]Therefore, it would be extremely helpful if the Government could tell us what is actually going on. Are they reviewing their rabies policy? If they are, surely such an integral part of such a review must be a risk assessment.
As I understood the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, last week, he seemed to imply that the Government will consider proposals for a change in policy and that they will then carry out a risk assessment. That would seem to a layman to be exactly the wrong way around. If the Government are reviewing policy, then surely a risk assessment must be an integral part of it. As I said, we now have an Answer twice within a week from Mrs. Angela Browning mentioning the review of the rabies policy.
When the Minister replies it will be extremely helpful if he will tell us what is going on. I understand that there is an inter-departmental review. Can the Minister tell us the timetable for that review and its components; in other words, what matters are being considered?
We have had a most useful debate on a most important subject. I have one further question for the Minister and I should at once declare an interest as a member of my family is a guidedog owner. Of all animals, guidedogs are properly looked after. They are fully recorded as regards their health; they are centrally registered and identified. Could not an exception be made for them on the same basis which already exists for what I believe are termed "tradeable animals"? Finally, I was intrigued by the mention of the possible 1184 inclusion in the Conservative election manifesto of proposals on rabies and quarantine. It seems to me that the spin doctors will have some fun with that one.
§ 8.45 p.m.
My Lords, I must say that it is a great pleasure to be answering a debate where every single speaker has spoken so clearly in favour of the basic principles of Government policy in this area; namely, first, the need to protect the public and our livestock against the disease of rabies and, secondly, that we should take a very careful look at how best to do so.
I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior for initiating tonight's debate. I greatly respect the sincerity of the views that he put forward, which were, I believe, echoed by every other speaker in the debate. However, there is an equally strongly held view which has not been expressed this evening. It is what one might call the "long view"; namely, that quarantine has served this country well and that there are no alternatives which carry as few risks. We also respect the sincerity with which that view is held. I do not believe that it helps a debate when some people—including, I am sad to say, one of my noble friends, Lady Rawlings—indulge in spurious rubbishing of it. If we had not had quarantine, it is quite clear that we would now have rabies in this country. The question is not whether quarantine works but whether we can find something which works better.
The question of whether to amend the present six months' quarantine requirement is a complex and difficult one. We are now looking again at our arrangements to keep rabies out of this country. I hope that that answers one of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Clearly a risk assessment will be part of such an examination if and when we reach the point where the proposals are clear enough and few enough to make that a sensible thing to do. At present there are just too many options under consideration. However, as I made clear at the beginning of my remarks, any changes will have to take as their starting point the paramount—and I am delighted that I have been able to find that word in my brief—need to protect the health of people and of animals in this country.
Rabies is held in awe—and rightly so. As my noble friend Lord Soulsby pointed out, tens of thousands of people worldwide die each year from the disease. People are right to be concerned that the disease should be kept out of this country. I do not share the relative lack of concern of my noble friend Lord Soulsby about fox-mediated rabies. I have seen no research, certainly no published peer-reviewed research, as to the nature of the difference between fox rabies and dog rabies. I have not seen that it has been genetically sequenced. I have not seen that research has been carried out on different forms of rabies to show whether they evolve with the species or whether it is a disease which has crossed species barriers in the relatively recent past.
I have not seen information on the variability of the disease within the European fox population. I certainly have not seen any results of dog-to-fox transmission experiments. I appreciate that the noble Lord is right to 1185 say that there are no demonstrable instances of it. But one would not really expect to find such instances, given the fact that the fox is likely to go away and be wild and no one will have seen the bite and, therefore, no one will know whether the fox was infected by a dog or another fox. Indeed, it would require proper experiments to prove what happened. The indications we have seem to suggest that it is certainly a possibility that it could happen.
Fox rabies is not something that we would want in this country. We have a large urban fox population and it would no longer be safe to let one's children play in the back garden if we had it. As my noble friend Lord Astor said, it would cause significant difficulties with fox-hunting, although that may not trouble some people. I suppose that the only people who would notably benefit are vets, who might expect an additional income of about £300 million a year if fox rabies was endemic in this country.
Quarantine has for long been the basis of our current policies. But, as we have heard tonight, quarantine is not popular with the pet owners affected. Some feel the separation from their animals deeply. That prolonged separation of owner from pet is seen as imposing a hardship on both of them. The debate this evening and the ministry's postbag bear eloquent witness to that fact. My noble friend Lord Liverpool and others have made that point with great eloquence and have pointed out that it not only affects our own people but also visitors and businessmen who do not come to this country when they otherwise might.
The question has also been raised of the quality of welfare in quarantine kennels. We have recently published a voluntary code of practice on welfare standards which has been sent out to kennel owners and prospective quarantine customers. It is not the case that the death rate of pets in quarantine is higher than that in the general population. As regards access by the RSPCA and other organisations, we do not accept that that is necessary given the safeguards that we already have. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wharton, said, welfare considerations are something which we are prohibited by the current legislation from taking into account when MAFF inspects quarantine kennels. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, will bring a Bill to this House in a couple of days' time. He is well aware that it is possible to address welfare issues through Private Member's Bills. I wish that he had chosen to address this issue rather than that of chickens. If he had done so, we might have had some more useful results from our debates.
In our review of rabies control measures, we shall look to see whether we can alleviate this distress while maintaining our existing level of protection against the disease. We accept the scientific evidence that a pet from Europe that is properly vaccinated before being exposed to rabies infection, satisfies a blood test, is conclusively identified, and has a residency certificate, would in theory pose no greater threat of introducing rabies into the United Kingdom than one entering under our current quarantine arrangements. However, it is not easy to devise an arrangement which would work in 1186 practice and offer the same level of protection. Clearly we could have a system ranging from what we have at the moment to a system where there were no controls at all, which I am sure would not be acceptable to any noble Lord. In between there is a wide range of possibilities, including those broadly of the type recommended in 1994 by the Agriculture Select Committee in another place. This might involve animals imported from certain "approved" countries being subject to a system of vaccination, blood checking and identification, along the lines of that introduced in Sweden. Animals imported from other countries, or which could not meet the conditions, would still have to be quarantined. We have not yet reached any conclusions but we are listening to all the arguments and weighing them up carefully. That is why the debate this evening, and all the various discussions which are going on through Passports for Pets and other organisations, are of such great value. However, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, that we are not considering dog licences.
There are two factors of which we shall have to take particular account in our review. The first is Europe. The Common Market and the free movement of goods and people are clearly principles which give the European Union a crucial interest in the future of our rabies control. Any proposed changes will have to be discussed with the Commission in great depth. We have its assurance that it shares with us a determination that any proposals agreed by it should provide at least the same level of protection as that provided for in relation to traded animals at present.
My noble friend Lord Astor wondered whether we might not be pushing at an open door. Indeed, as regards Europe, we are. What we are worried about is that there might be an oubliette on the other side. We might find ourselves with regulations which are so loose that they resulted in an increased risk of rabies in this country.
Many noble Lords have raised the question of smuggling. To my mind the key defence against smuggling is that everybody knows that any dog or cat entering the country in a normal vehicle, or with a foot passenger, must be an illegal import. That is the key deterrent to smuggling. In any other system clearly there would be a reduced incentive—or there might be a reduced incentive—if the costs of importing a pet were reduced. However, there might be an increased incentive if it was easier to smuggle a pet under the particular system put in place. That is one of the aspects of any new system that one would have to look at. One would have to consider whether it would make smuggling easier to the point where people would smuggle more.
The second factor we have to look at is enforcement. Alternative arrangements would have to be capable of maintaining our protection against rabies in theory and in practice. With a vaccine based system we would need to be sure, for example, that the paperwork accompanying every cat and dog entering the United Kingdom could be checked and found to be acceptable. We would also, I imagine, want to be able to detain animals subject to blood tests until that test had shown an acceptable result. These difficulties may or may not be insuperable, but they would certainly require careful 1187 consideration. We would also have to consider the additional administrative cost of the alternatives to quarantine. Depending on the system adopted, enforcement could be expensive. Clearly we need a system where there will be people charged with looking at what might be a large number of dogs coming into and out of this country. I suppose we could give them the title "Dogwatch" and try to sell the rights to television, but somehow I think "Baywatch" will always be more popular.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked a couple of questions which I would like to give particular attention to. First, he asked about guide dogs. Guide dogs will in many cases have been kept under close control and have well-documented histories. We shall be looking at the question of guide dogs in our review but I cannot prejudge the outcome. Secondly, he asked when the results of the review would be announced. This was a question which I think was amplified by the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, who even suggested that something he had read in the Sunday Telegraph might be true. That is always a dangerous supposition. I said to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, last week that the Government are looking again at the rabies quarantine 1188 rules. If there is a decision on any new moves, an announcement will be made. Obviously this is a complex matter. It is too early to say when a decision might be made, if it were to be made. I hope that is suitably inscrutable for the noble Lord.
My noble friend Lord Astor also asked what mechanisms we would need to use to change the present regulations. We believe it would be technically possible to change them by a statutory instrument. But given the considerable interest there would be should any proposal be made to change these regulations, such considerations might weigh rather more heavily than the merely technical. Our challenge is to maintain a system of rabies control that is both secure and enforceable. We are looking again to see whether anything would offer us the same degree of protection and of enforceability that we enjoy at present. But, as I have previously said, any changes would have to take as their starting point the paramount need—I really think that is going overboard for my noble friend Lord Cochrane—to protect the health both of people and of animals in this country.
House adjourned at three minutes before nine o'clock.