HL Deb 04 November 1997 vol 582 cc1313-6

2.50 p.m.

Lord Waddington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When a pet dog, which has been vaccinated against rabies and is entering the United Kingdom from another country internationally recognised to be rabies-free, will no longer have to undergo quarantine.

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

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced on 2nd October a scientific assessment of the current quarantine arrangements and alternatives to them. The assessment is to be carried out by an independent team and will be published. A full public consultation will then be held. Unless and until the law is changed following the assessment and consultation, the existing quarantine laws remain in place.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, as the Government are not prepared to remove this cruel practice of quarantine, even in the case of vaccinated dogs coming from areas which are certified by the World Health Organisation as being rabies-free, will they at least ensure that in the meantime there is proper inspection of quarantine kennels and supervision of the vets who operate with those quarantine kennels? What on earth is the use of the Ministry of Agriculture issuing guidance to kennel owners telling them to inform pet owners if their pets are ill, if the kennels are so inefficient that they do not even know that a dog is dying in front of their very eyes so that it has to be put down within 48 hours of its release from its six-month sentence? It was my dog and in that sense I declare an interest.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, naturally, I was sorry about the death of Basil. However, the reports from our veterinary inspectors of the kennels do not entirely coincide with what the noble Lord implies. The veterinary inspectors inspected the dog on three occasions and found no signs of disease. The kennels in question are considered to be among the better ones. There have not been any complaints. The kennels were inspected last week and have been recommended for relicensing.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is there any enforcement procedure apart from mere recommendations of practice; and if so, who enforces it, what are the standards, and what are the sanctions?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the kennels operate under statutory standards in relation to the physical security of the animals and disease in order to ensure that any diseased animal does not mix with other animals. In terms of welfare, the statute does not apply, but the department has introduced a voluntary code of welfare applying welfare standards. Of the 79 kennels, 74 have accepted the welfare code. Two are still to reply.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, is the noble Lord in touch with Sweden, which I understand has been extremely successful in reducing the period of quarantine that dogs have to undergo?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I have not vet had any connection with Sweden. However, the department is in close contact with Sweden and is studying the Swedish reforms introduced in 1994. We shall assess the effectiveness of those reforms. The new independent scientific assessment committee will take into account all that has happened there.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, will my noble friend accept that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, should not criticise him because attempts to get quarantine restrictions lifted during the period of the previous Government were totally unsuccessful, although I understand many attempts were made? Can my noble friend say whether, if the restrictions are lifted, consideration will be given to the introduction of a dog registration scheme? It will be necessary to register dogs that are brought into this country under such conditions; but would it not be rather odd to have a registration scheme for those dogs but not for others?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her question and for what she has said. It is the case that in the previous 18 years nothing was done and that in five months we have introduced these proposals. My noble friend makes a helpful suggestion on the registration of dogs. I shall see that it is taken into account.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is it not the case that veterinary and scientific opinion no longer overwhelmingly believes that quarantine is necessary? The alternatives, which may involve a considerable expansion of the state veterinary system, would mean a great deal of public expenditure. Is that not the real problem?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, scientific standards have improved a little since this system was introduced in 1902. It is quite appropriate that we should look at the matter again from that point of view. The costs of any revised scheme will be borne by pet owners as they are under the existing scheme. I am sure that the vets will continue to do quite well out of it.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State is holding discussions with the European Commission and members of the EU with regard to the way forward in changing quarantine laws? Does he agree that in the future it will be a change in European law that will bring about a resolution of the problems over quarantine rather than a change to British law?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness to the Dispatch Box. Her intelligence and charm, which have already been demonstrated, will make a great contribution. She is spot on here. She has put her finger on the important question of the European attitude to this issue. The European Commission has already expressed considerable interest and appears to intend to have a European approach to pet imports. We are proceeding on our own basis and with our own scientific assessments. We shall have a public consultation after that; and, if need be, and if the results of the committee point that way, we shall introduce our own changes. It appears that this is likely to be wrapped up in the European changes, but we wait to see how that works out.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, I welcome the independent scientific assessment announced by the Minister. But does he not agree that the Agriculture Select Committee in another place some three years ago recommended overwhelmingly that the quarantine laws should be reviewed? Does he not further agree that unless action is taken soon the chances of pets being smuggled over borders will become very much greater?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I agree that is a danger. We are aware of the 1994 Select Committee report and it will be borne in mind by our scientific committee. However, I should point out that the Select Committee's report was not solidly based on scientific advice, as our report will be.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, can the noble Lord say what will be the timescale for this assessment?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, to some extent that is out of our hands in that the assessment will be carried out by an independent body. We hope that it will proceed rapidly; we assume that the matter will take a few months. We shall publish the independent body's report and there will then be public consultation. So it is unlikely there will be a result earlier than the second half of 1998. Whether that encompasses the holiday season for going abroad with pets remains to be seen.