HL Deb 09 July 1997 vol 581 cc622-6

2.49 p.m.

Baroness Sharples

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect to reduce or eliminate the present six-month quarantine for domestic pets entering this country.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, in the light of our commitment to do so, we are actively considering whether alternatives to quarantine may give equal or better protection against the importation of rabies. Because of the wide and legitimate interest in this subject, we would expect to consult at some point on the matter. Decisions on when and how to do so have yet to be taken.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Are her Majesty's Government in contact with the Swedish Government which, three years ago, abolished quarantine since when there have been no cases of rabies and no increase in bringing dogs into the country illegally? Also, can the noble Lord say how many years it is since a case of rabies occurred within the quarantine kennels?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we are in contact with Sweden. The year after it introduced the new system we sent officials there to see how it was working. We have remained in contact since. The Swedish system is one that we will look at closely and take into account when we come to our own conclusions. On rabies in quarantine in this country, the last probable case was in 1983 when a dog imported from the United States died. The scientist who investigated concluded that it was rabies, although only one of the three normal tests was able to be made.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that conditions in some of the quarantine kennels are very much below standard and that government inspectors have apparently no right to enter them, although the RSPCA can? Are the Government doing something to improve the previous legislation?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, it is true that the Animal Health Act 1981, which covers licensing, covers disease control and physical security but it has been our legal advice that it does not cover the welfare and physical comfort of the animals there. As a result, the department has introduced a voluntary code to apply to the kennels. Our inspectors are currently inspecting all kennels and have nearly completed that process. Where they meet the code that information is given to all people who intend to put animals into kennels.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the ambit of this Question should possibly be enlarged to include not only domestic pets but all animals—farm animals, horses and so on? Does he further agree that with modern scientific developments and our increased knowledge of this disease it is quite unnecessary to have quarantine to safeguard the health of this country?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. On a previous occasion an impression was conveyed that quarantine is fairly narrowly confined to pets. But those animals subject to it are carnivores, bats, rabbits, marsupials, primates and even rodents, although I believe journalists are exempt. It is believed that farm animals are not a danger because they are an end-host recipient and do not pass it on. In terms of bringing the system to an end, we shall have to be convinced that any other system ensures that the UK is, as now, rabies free and that any such system is enforceable.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, how many animals have died as a result of stress and other reasons in the past 10 or 20 years?

Lord Donoughue

Died where, my Lords? I do not have the answer to that question—nor about human beings either.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, what are the numbers involved? Is contact maintained with the British Veterinary Association when this problem either increases or decreases? The British Veterinary Association is surely a valuable help to the Minister and should be kept constantly informed. Will he let me have his views on that possibility?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that British vets are closely involved and of course are deeply involved in advising the ministry.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's comments that any alternative arrangements would safeguard this country against the importation of rabies. The majority of the conditions for lifting quarantine have been met—an adequate vaccination policy, identification, certification and the freedom of the European Union from dog rabies and a virtual absence of fox rabies. Can he assure the House that he will speed the consideration of lifting quarantine in view of the fact that many bodies agree that it is timely to lift the quarantine regulations and requirements?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Lord is one of the most distinguished experts in this field. We are aware of his views. I can assure him that we shall proceed on this matter with all speed commensurate with not subjecting the United Kingdom to risk.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the United Kingdom and Hawaii are the only two countries that retain these draconian six-month quarantine rules? Is it not the case that unless the Government take on board the recommendations of the Agriculture Select Committee of another place some two years ago there will be a heightened risk of smuggling, which could indirectly bring rabies into Britain?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The danger of smuggling is one of the main factors we have under consideration. I do not share the noble Lord's knowledge of Hawaii, but if I can find a way of investigating local conditions I will.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, in his original Answer I think I heard the Minister use the word "consult" in the context of alternatives to quarantine. Can he help the House by saying what other bodies, apart from the British Veterinary Association which was mentioned by his noble friend Lord Molloy, the Government will be consulting?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, it is our intention to produce a discussion paper. That paper would be open to all and we would wish to listen to the views of all bodies and all members of the public.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, can the noble Lord give an assurance that he and the Government will not be trammelled too far into giving up quarantine for rabies? Does he agree that rabies in human beings is a most terrible disease? Whenever the matter has been considered in the past it has always been thought prudent to retain our quarantine arrangements. Will he therefore not get rid of the quarantine arrangements without ensuring that any substitute is just as good?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I can give the noble Earl that assurance.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, while I agree that my noble friend should take into consideration the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is he aware that only four human beings have died in western Europe since the last war from rabies contracted in western Europe? Will he take into consideration not only the effect it has on human beings but also the effects on dogs and other animals of being incarcerated for six months?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am aware of those figures. That is one of the reasons why we are actively reconsidering the position. No doubt the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, would say that one of the reasons why the figures in this country are so good is that we have the present controls.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is it not true that people who might contract rabies do not have to have the awful injections in the stomach which used to be given in the past but in fact have three injections in the shoulder and that they suffer no ill effects?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I believe that the position in relation to such protection is much improved in the way the noble Baroness has described.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept my congratulations on his first Answer to my noble friend Lady Sharples? It seemed enormously helpful but gave no commitments whatever on the actual timescale of the process. Does he accept that we share the concern that this matter should be addressed speedily? Whatever the conclusion may be, there is no longer any excuse for delay. The noble Lord should be able to give us a greater commitment as to when the White Paper or the discussion paper will be produced and when he would anticipate we might expect legislation if that is to be the case.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his gracious remarks. I can assure him that we shall have less delay than prevailed previously. We propose to commission scientific assessments of quarantine and the alternatives. It will depend how long that takes, but we propose to publish a discussion paper and subsequently to follow that up. I am reluctant to give a date because in life that tends to be embarrassing. I can assure the noble Lord that measures will be taken as rapidly as possible.