HL Deb 02 November 1998 vol 594 cc3-6

2.40 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior asked Her Majesty's Government:

With regard to the recent report by the Advisory Group on Quarantine, Quarantine and Rabies, whether they consider it reasonable to expect that it will take up to three years to arrange adequate facilities and administrative and operational structures for the importation of dogs and cats into the United Kingdom without the requirement to undergo quarantine for six months.

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

My Lords, the advisory group recommended that changes to the present system of quarantine should not be introduced until an administrative and operational infrastructure was in place and thought that it might take up to three years to do this. The Government are sympathetic to the advisory group's recommendations, but have asked for comments on the report by 31st December. The Government are in the meantime looking closely at the legal, financial and practical aspects, including the timetable, and will decide on the way forward after the public consultation has ended.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, I thank the Minister for what I hope is an encouraging reply. I am sure that he will agree that the majority of people concerned with this issue very much welcome the Kennedy Report. But does he agree that because of the long-awaited risk assessment which has been undertaken, it would be realistic to open one or two admission centres now in order to admit animals which qualify and in order to gain experience of so doing?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Lord is one of the country's most distinguished experts in this field. I not only listen to what he says, but also in the past I have almost always agreed with him. We are looking at the possibility of various kinds of trials. My right honourable friend in another place, in the debate last Thursday, stated that he was looking sympathetically at a number of ways in which we may conduct trials which would assist us. However, it is possible that such an approach may delay the introduction of the new system. I am sure the noble Lord would not want that, and neither would I.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, in light of the strong recommendations in the Kennedy Report and the estimate by the RSPCA that up to 1,000 pets are being smuggled into Britain every year of which barely 100 are detected by the authorities, surely if one or two ports or airports were opened to introduce the recommendations for a passport for pets, the system could be phased in far more quickly than a three-year period.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we do not know how many pets are being smuggled into the country; there are different estimates. The noble Lord's suggestion is sensible and helpful. As my right honourable friend said, we will look at all suggestions of that kind. We are currently conducting a public consultation exercise. The Government will not announce their decisions until after that consultation has been completed. I am quite open-minded on the issue. However, I can report to the House that roughly 90 per cent. of the responses received so far have been in favour of the reforms recommended by the report.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, has the Minister received information, as I have, from the Channel Tunnel and ferry operators that they already have in place facilities to start the new procedure? Given those excellent facilities, will it be possible for the Minister to explain what are the administrative and operational structures that will take three years to put in place?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we hope it will not take three years to put the scheme in place. The possibility of the Channel Tunnel was mentioned last Thursday in another place and my right honourable friend welcomed that; he said that he would look into it. However, I should make clear to the House that the introduction of the new system is not a simple operation. It involves designating ports and airports; having in place microchip facilities for identification; and introducing laboratory facilities for vaccination, confirmation and testing. We must have the facilities to look at every animal at every place of entry and the scheme is therefore quite complex, as the report says.

The Government's position is that we cannot introduce a new system that is any less protective of the public from rabies than the old system. Whatever system is introduced must protect the public and must have been tested and proven to do so. I would not wish noble Lords to underestimate that point. Whether it should or would take three years is a matter of opinion.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that, now that it has become apparent that there is no need for quarantine in the case of an animal which has been vaccinated, there will be a greater temptation for people to smuggle in animals which have been vaccinated and that in itself is a good argument for the Government making as much speed as possible in this matter?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we see the strength of that argument but, until the new system is introduced, it remains a serious offence to smuggle animals into Britain. It is not only an offence, it is also unfair on fellow citizens. Therefore I strongly urge people not to smuggle in animals and, on our part, we will do what we can to introduce any new system as soon as possible.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, will the Minister consider making a special case for expedition in relation to guide dogs for the blind, so as to enable blind people to travel to and from this country with guide dogs? Will he also consider a similar priority for other people suffering from a serious disability, such as multiple sclerosis, who depend utterly on their dogs for freedom of movement? Can that be given urgent priority whatever the general position and the general administrative problems?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Lord has pressed this worthy cause before. I am sympathetic to it. However, I should point out that it is not as simple as might appear to open the scheme to guide dogs. Were it to be open to guide dogs wherever they enter the country the system would have to be in place everywhere. We will look at the possibility of priority or prior entry but it is complicated and may not be possible. However, we will look at it with the same sympathy as that expressed by the noble Lord.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, cannot the noble Lord expedite matters where dogs that are vaccinated in this country and microchipped travel to a rabies-free zone in Europe where they are given annual booster vaccinations certified by a vet, and are examined by a vet and given another booster before being returned to this country? When going to some parts of Europe pets have to have the vaccinations in any case.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, that is a major part of the new system we are contemplating. At the present time it is not the system we inherited and currently operate.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Kennedy committee would not have made its recommendations if vaccination were not accepted as being absolutely safe and if the technology for electronic identification was not also well proven? Surely in that situation it is not a question of consultation or designing a scheme; it is a question of installing the appropriate technology at ports of entry. Could not the whole job be conducted more expeditiously than appears to be the case?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we hope to do it as expeditiously as possible. As regards consultation, we stated at the beginning that we would have full consultation with the public and with interested parties. Some interested parties oppose the direction in which we are proceeding. Our approach is to have full consultation. We shall then have the backing both of the scientific report and of the opinion that we have consulted with regard to our chosen approach.

The existing system has been in operation for nearly 100 years. We are contemplating quite a radical but, in my view, necessary and belated change. We need to carry people with us. From our point of view, and from the views expressed in this House, I believe that we are certainly doing so.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister advise us whether, when the new regulations are in force, he will consider granting an amnesty to those pets in quarantine kennels at that time which otherwise fully comply with all the regulations that would be required of them?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, that is certainly an intriguing question. I shall take that away and consider it.