HL Deb 22 July 1998 vol 592 cc874-6

2.58 p.m.

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

When the report of the Advisory Group on Quarantine is due to be published, and how soon after receipt of the report they plan to announce their decision.

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

My Lords, the Advisory Group on Quarantine is expected to report to Ministers very shortly. The report will be published and the Government will hold a full public consultation, which is likely to last two or three months, before making decisions.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that we simply have to make progress on this matter because the cruelty involved in keeping dogs in solitary confinement without any exercise, in kennels which we now know from a recent television programme are often woefully inadequate, can be justified only if there is no other safe way of protecting the public against rabies? If there is an alternative, it must be adopted, and adopted quickly. Will the Minister tell Professor Kennedy that there must not be any further slippage in his timetable? We were first of all told that the report would be published in the new year, then in March and then in May. Will the Government publish the report as soon as it is received from Professor Kennedy and then come to a swift conclusion? For the life of me, I cannot see the justification for two to three months' consultation when people have given their advice to the Government over recent years.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not accept any criticism of Professor Kennedy and his committee. The committee was not expected to report in the new year since the membership was announced only shortly before Christmas. Its members have worked very hard and very fast. They have been dealing particularly with the complex area of risk assessment. A number of Members of this House have expressed the need for more scientific risk assessment on other issues. The committee has devoted a good deal of time to that. Given the extensive and serious nature of its report—the fact that six options of risk and cost benefit are being considered—I believe that it will prove to be a valuable report. The committee has worked very hard indeed.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, as a trial, will the Government consider allowing properly vaccinated, blood-tested and micro-chipped pets of British servicemen and their families in Cyprus to return home without quarantine? Cyprus is rabies free. The present situation is causing great distress to these service families.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the options being examined centrally include whether to use a system of identification, vaccination and blood testing. The report will give the committee's views on the relative risks involved. If that method is adopted, it should apply to all animals and not exempt groups such as servicemen with pets. As regards Cyprus, our current legislation, which has been in operation for nearly a century, is a blanket measure. One reason why it is difficult to make exemptions for particular countries is that, although they may claim to be rabies free, we have no control over where dogs or cats may have come from en route via Cyprus.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, can the Minister think of any good reason why successive governments have failed to make an exception for blind people and others who are severely physically impaired, preventing them from bringing their guide dogs into this country, even with proper vaccination certificates, so that when they come here they are unaided by their animals, which are treated as pets? Can the Minister give an assurance that, whatever else happens, there will be speedy consideration of the need to consider that category of person?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the committee has consulted all the relevant associations which deal with guide dogs for the blind and the deaf. The good reason was that the existing policy was a blanket measure without exemptions. It was considered that any exemptions were a risk and that it was conceivable that a dog to guide a blind person might have been as exposed as any other dog. That is why the committee is looking urgently at alternatives. Perhaps I should declare an interest on this. I have a most beautiful and wicked Jack Russell.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that the policy established 30 years ago has kept rabies out of this country?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. That is why the existing policy is one of the six options being examined and assessed in terms of its risk and the relativity of the other options. If the other options have no more risk than the present one, we shall look at them with interest.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether he is having parallel discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic, bearing in mind that the only land border between the United Kingdom and any other country is the one between the North and South of Ireland and, as we are well aware for many other reasons, it is not secure?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Viscount is quite right. Throughout our reconsideration of policy we have kept in close consultation with the Irish Republic. Our officials have discussed the matter with Irish officials. In April I was in the Republic discussing this and other matters with the Irish Minister of Agriculture at the time of the Listowel and Leopardstown races.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, the Minister promised us the report very shortly. How short is "very shortly"?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, "very shortly" is very soon.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, will my noble friend give the House an absolute assurance that if the quarantine regulations are to be relaxed in any way whatever, it will be only on the basis that there is no conceivable chance of any rabid animal getting into this country under any circumstances?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not believe that anyone could give that assurance. One cannot give it under the present system. There have been cases of rabid dogs imported under the present system. Our position is that if there is a change, it shall not significantly increase the risk to public health. That is the basis on which the system is being assessed.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that circus animals from abroad are treated differently from guide dogs for the blind?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, traded and commercial animals operate under their own regulations under the Balai agreement. I do not know whether the noble Baroness is referring to that. Animals for research are treated differently, but they each have strong regulation. In many respects the trade in commercial animals is as strict or stricter.