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Diseases Of Animals Bill

Volume 894: debated on Wednesday 25 June 1975

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[ Lords]

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

10.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Gavin Strang)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It has been gratifying to see the favourable response to this measure here and in the other place. I believe that that is confirmation that the Bill speaks for itself and I do not propose to take up the time of the House on this occasion.

The length of a Bill is no guide to its importance. In this case the House has recognised that the Bill meets a vital need—that of maintaining up-to-date defences against the scourge of animal diseases from abroad. I understand that hon. Members wish to raise a number of points, and with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be happy to answer them at the end of the debate.

11.0 p.m.

As the Minister has implied, the Opposition welcome this Bill. That has been evident during its passage, because we have not sought in any way to obstruct its progress. We recognise the need to support the Government on animal health matters of this kind. Animal health is probably one of the most non-political subjects that this House considers. It is also one of the most technical.

There are two aspects I want to raise tonight which have been raised at earlier stages. I make no apology for bringing them up once more. The first concerns psittacosis. Considerable discussion has already taken place about whether this disease is endemic. If it is, clearly it represents an increased threat to our poultry industry. I am aware that this Bill is aimed at updating the provisions of the Diseases of Animals Act 1950, which relates to the import of animals, birds and "other things".

The Minister will be aware that the importation of parrots has caused considerable concern to poultry farmers since the import ban was removed by order in 1967. It is only right that we should again ask the Minister what the current stance is on this. We are anxious that the Minister should give priority to detecting and dealing with such diseases.

In addition there is the other aspect of psittacosis which manifests itself in the potential risk to human beings. The figures show that in each of the past five years on average two persons per year have died from this disease. In Committee we rather let the Minister off the hook, as he will recognise, because later that day he was to answer a Written Question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) on this subject. In that answer the Minister said that he had reviewed the matter and had also taken the views of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. He went on:
"While controls are not considered justified on human health grounds alone, a review of the disease risks to poultry posed by unrestricted imports of psittacines and other captive birds gives cause for concern. I am therefore considering the form and timing of appropriate import controls and I shall be consulting the trade and other interests."—[Official Report, 11th June 1975; Vol. 893, c. 190.]
Clearly in the light of this answer we will want to hear tonight whether we are likely to know the outcome of these inquiries and what form the appropriate import controls will take. Is the Minister thinking in terms of a ban? If there is not a total ban, what are the alternatives? I believe that we are justified in seeking clarification, because we interpret that not all is at one between the Departments that are involved. We should like clarification of the Minister's intentions.

Next, I turn to rabies. We accept that the Government have acted in respect of the Rabies Act 1974. That Act provides them with the various provisions which we hope will enable them to take the necessary measures should this disaster again come to these islands. However, we should like the Minister's assurance that he is satisfied that he has all the powers that the Government require. After all, we know that rabies is extending westwards across the continent of North-West Europe. That has given cause for considerable public concern. We would join with the Ministry in expressing the view that it is necessary to maintain the campaign to draw the attention of the public to the full implications if rabies were again to be found in the United Kingdom.

Will the Minister give an assurance that strict policing policies are taking place at airports and on ferries? If ever the statement that prevention is better than cure were relevant it is in this particular instance. That must be so given the potential threat and the implications that would be involved if rabies were again to break out in these islands. We seek further clarification, further explanation and the required assurance as regard psittacosis and rabies.

11.8 p.m.

I welcome the Bill as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks). I do so particularly as we are told there will be no significant effect on public service manpower. But without extra manpower at the ports, how strict will be the controls that can be carried out over these dangerous diseases which can be imported? How much money will the work, as outlined, cost in a full year?

I now turn to the importation of psittacines. It was the death of a farm worker in my constituency that brought the matter to my notice. We must recognise the danger that they bring not only to human beings but to the whole of our poultry population. As the Minister has found, there is undoubtedly a tie-up with a virulent form of poultry fowl pest. The death of the farm worker's wife and the illness of many of his family worried both the NUAW organiser in my constituency, Mr. Jack Boddy, and the farmer, Mr. Ted Wootton. The Minister was kind enough to receive them with myself at a long and interesting discussion with his officials. We came away with a good impression of the way in which he understood the seriousness of the case.

It was a long time before the matter came to a head, but finally my Question on importation was answered. I have two supplementary questions to ask. First, why did the Secretary of State for Social Services not consider controls justified on human health grounds? If the right hon. Lady was serious about the matter and the Ministry of Agriculture considered that there was a reason for controls, the answer to my Question would have been worded differently. It would have combined the two matters and said that because of the joint effect it was agreed that action should be taken. I wish to know why the right hon. Lady took up the position she did.

Secondly, I should like to ask whether this means beyond a peradventure that at some time in the future there will be import controls on these birds? If so, how long does the Minister expect it will be before he is able to put these controls into effect? I am grateful to the Minister for having answer my Question, but I should like further clarification on those two points.

I wish to turn to the subject of rabies, which is undoubtedly a most horrifying disease which can affect animals and humans. I believe that there is no cure whatever for it and it seems that it has been spreading from the Polish corridor gradually across Europe as far as the French coastline opposite this country. How close to the coastline has it now reached? How much co-operation is there with the French authorities in finding out how they are endeavouring to control the situation? Is there constant co-operation and visits to the French veterinary headquarters to try to find out what can be done from our side to prevent the importation of any animal which might bring this disease into this country?

I wish to ask about extra precautions being taken at ports and airports. I should like to see a publicity film made on this topic screened as a warning to those who love to smuggle in pets. I believe that would be of immense benefit. People seem to be far more concerned about the welfare of animals in this country than about the welfare of human beings. There is no doubt that these matters hit the headlines and occasions on which Members of Parliament are lobbied are, nine times out of ten, connected with animals. I certainly consider that a film on the subject would bring the truth of the matter home to those who are likely to smuggle in a small dog and thereby risk the lives of thousands of pets throughout the country. If the message was rubbed home in that way, we might be able to avoid the importation of certain animals.

I congratulate the Minister on having brought forward this Bill and on the steps he is taking concerning the importation of psittacines. I hope that he will have every power behind his elbow to prevent this dread scourge of rabies invading the land.

11.16 p.m.

I apologise for not having been able to be present at the previous discussions on this Bill. Matters such as the Finance Bill happened to coincide.

I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly and wish only to ask the Minister a number of pertinent questions. He will recollect the time we spent on the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill some years ago on the question of zöonosis, and what worries me first and foremost is how far, in legislating about the transmission of animal diseases, we are satisfactorily dealing with the problem of those diseases which are transmissible from animal to man.

In reading the Bill there appears to me to be a lacuna—I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me—between the rôle of his Department, with its highly-skilled veterinary staff, and the rôle of the Department of Health and Social Security and its highly-skilled staff. This gap between the rôles of two excellent Departments could give rise to risks to the population of this country, and I want to give a warning about them.

I have in mind not the highly specific psittacosis problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) but the whole problem of ornithosis, with which the House is well acquainted. The Minister knows very well that there is some evidence—it may at the moment by ephemeral, it may not be proved beyond peradventure—that high concentrations of turkeys, hens, and so on, can lead to a risk to those involved in their maintenance and care. It crosses the line between a veterinary condition, which is the proper function of the Minister's Department, and a medical condition, which is the proper function of the Department of Health and Social Security.

I am not certain how the Bill affects the importation of poultry eggs or day-old chicks where there is no evidence that they are possessed of a disease which is damaging or disadvantageous to poultry. If it clearly damages poultry there are powers provided, but I am not certain that the Bill protects the poultry keeper or the poultry dresser in the factory. There is a gap, enabling the importation of day-old chicks which would totally satisfy the provisions of the Bill and which would not involve the disease of animals as defined by it yet such animals could carry a risk of disease to the human beings handling them, which I would find unacceptable. It seems that there is this gap.

Let me take this another stage and refer to what is probably the most prevalent cause of human discomfort that we have, which is salmonella. This Bill does not seem to cope with the problem of the transferance of salmonella from animals to humans. It is not classified as an animal disease. Yet the risk that the dairy man, shepherd, or whoever it may be who is dealing with these animals, could infect his family with salmonella is high. It may not be fatal, though unfortunately it can be on occasion. But it is a most unpleasant, nasty business, and it does not seem to be covered in the Bill because we are dealing too specifically with diseases of animals and assuming that man is not an animal. What worries me about the Bill is that, because of departmentalising in Whitehall, we classify animals as non-human and humans as non-animal. The two never get together, and the problems of these zoonotic conditions are not dealt with properly.

In general, I welcome the Bill. But, having read the discussion in another place and on Second Reading and in Committee in this House, I regret that this area was not aired more fully.

I turn to the problem of bees. I know that my hon. Friend has a keen interest in bee-keeping, and perhaps I should declare my own interest in that I am a very amateur bee-keeper.

A number of fertilised queen bees are imported. Those queen bees of themselves may be totally free from disease. It is only when they have been released into a colony that the presence of disease can be known. It is only when their eggs, their grubs and their progeny emerge that the presence of the disease can ever be discovered.

Even after a careful reading of
"other things, whether animate or inanimate",
it does not appear that it covers the unborn progeny of the imported "thing". If we import fertilised queen bees from Israel, Italy or from wherever we are in the habit of importing them, they may bring into the country a disease which is both spreadable and vicious. I cannot see how the point can be covered by
"fish, reptiles, crustaceans and other cold-blooded creatures not falling within paragraph (a) or paragraph (b) above".
I cannot see how the unproduced eggs of a fertilised queen bee are covered by the provisions of the Bill.

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that queen bees are imported solo, without attendant worker bees? The advice of the Ministry is that, when bees are imported, a worker bee sample should be sent away for examination to check whether there is any evidence of either American or European foul brood. I think that the American variety is the most common.

I am more than happy to respond to my hon. Friend's intervention. I deal with the specific problem of foul brood. It is the practice to put any imported queen bee in a separate container, with a number of worker bees in a distinct container alongside so that the worker bees can be analysed to see whether they are afflicted with either American or European common foul brood. This is a relatively simple process, but there are a number of specifically commercial queen bees, particularly in Israel where there is a breed of queen bees that have an inherent characteristic of non-swarming. The practice is to import them without the worker bees.

It has not been realistic so far to test that group of queen bees because there are no worker bees. Bees of an imported sample are not the progeny of the queen, they are the progeny of the hive.

There seems to be a technical difficulty in the drafting of the Bill and it may extend to more than just bees. There may be fertilised females of a number of species who are disease-free themselves, but whose progeny may carry the risk of disease.

I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly, but there are two or three areas of difficulty.

11.27 p.m.

We have learned a great deal from the two hon. Members who spoke immediately preceding me. Both raised important issues and it has been an interesting debate so far.

I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill as a matter of urgency. Much can be done to help the agriculture industry and its various sectors.

I am in favour of clauses 1 to 5. Their provisions are necessary if we are to safeguard our interests at home and abroad. I have had meetings with the chief executive officer of the National Farmers' Union at Aberystwyth, Mr. Evan Lewis, a number of branches of the union and farmers interested in animal diseases. All union leaders and the majority of farmers accept the Bill as a necessity if we are to improve our control of every type of disease.

There are one or two points on which I should like clarification. Now that we are full members of the EEC, have we a common policy to cover diseases of animals? In the late 1960s, we had a foot-and-mouth epidemic that cost us millions of pounds. Now we have a slaughtering policy, while the EEC has a vaccination policy. In future, will there be a slaughtering policy in the EEC or will we have to accept their vaccination policy? That is one matter which worries me.

Then there is another problem facing sheep farmers in Britain. Scab is on the increase once again, in many parts of the South of England and coming up to the Midlands. I wonder whether now is the opportune time to reintroduce compulsory dipping in Britain to safeguard the sheep industry.

I should also like to ask the Minister about the problem of thea nimal vis-à-vis the human being. Many people, particularly vets, have suffered from the disease brucellosis. In Britain we vaccinate our cattle with S19. I am wondering whether that is the policy within the rest of the EEC, and whether we can agree over a period upon a common policy of injecting all cattle with S19.

The Government's policy is to expand home food production. If we believe that we should try to conquer inflation, it is our duty to take every precaution to safeguard our stock from any sort of disease entering Britain from any part of the world. It has been proved in the past that many millions of pounds have been lost to the agriculture industry because we did not have enough control over imports. We on the Liberal bench recognise the need to support the Government on animal health and welfare grounds and to make sure that the agriculture industry plays its part by accepting the revised provisions in relation to diseases of animals, which in the long run will be beneficial to all concerned.

11.32 p.m.

The hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) raised some fascinating matters. I hope that the Minister will deal with them adequately and fully. As the contribution of the hon. Member for Durham went on, I was reminded of the poem about the walrus and the carpenter, because the content of what he was saying became curiouser and curiouser.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) in welcoming the Bill and hoping that it has a speedy passage on to the statute book.

I want to direct my remarks entirely to the disease of rabies. I did this in Committee and I wish to do so again tonight. Rabies is a horrific, terrible disease. Its effect upon man is quite unbelievable. I certainly go along with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West. Perhaps the Government could get a film made of the effects of this disease. I am sure that it would make anyone tempted to smuggle in an animal from the Continent think twice about what he was doing.

I direct my remarks to rabies because in recent weeks a number of people have drawn to my attention—perhaps even boasted of it—the fact that they have gone to the Continent and brought back an animal and got it into Britain terribly easily, the animal being concealed in a shopping bag, under a false seat in a car, in a false-bottomed car boot, or whatever. These animals could well have been in contact with animals infected by rabies, and they could bring that disease to Britain.

Will the Minister clearly indicate whether there will be sufficient officers to inspect all vehicles and all people that will be travelling to and from the continent of Europe? In recent years the number of movements to and from the Continent has increased dramatically, not only commercial movements but the movement of people going on holidays and visits. I hope that sufficient inspectors will be available to ensure that their presence is a deterrent to people who are tempted to bring animals into Britain without putting those animals through the necessary quarantine period.

This is a very serious matter. Rabies is sweeping across Western Europe. I believe that a number of cases have already been reported in the Pas de Calais and it is calculated that the disease will have reached the Channel ports before 1980. That obviously poses a serious threat to this country. I was to some extent reassured by the answer that the Minister gave in Committee, but I hope that he will be a little more forthcoming this evening and will indicate clearly that he is confident that there will be enough inspectors to deter people who might be tempted, perhaps for what they believe to be the best of reasons, to bring animals into the country without them going through the necessary quarantine period.

11.36 p.m.

I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government on proceeding with it. I should like to echo the queries of my hon. Friends on whether there will be enough vets to staff what would appear to be an increased number of duties. I am well aware that the Explanatory Memorandum of the Bill says

"The Bill will have no significant effect on public service manpower."
However, judging from the duties which will be promulgated, by order, under the 12 headings in Schedule 1, they will certainly not have fewer duties, and they might actually have more. That assessment is based on the assumption that there will be no outbreaks of particularly nasty animal diseases such as hit this country from time to time, and which put a considerable strain on the State veterinary services which, to put it mildly, are not exactly overmanned anyway.

Have the vets been consulted on the Bill? I imagine that they have. If so we should welcome an indication from the Minister of the view the vets have put forward. Do they regard the Bill as workable with no addition to their existing manpower?

The Bill gives the vets enough to do without having to cope with an outbreak of some animal disease. Who are we to assume that there will not be one of the periodic outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease or swine fever?

Hon. Members have referred to rabies. An outbreak of this disease began on the Franco-German border and is moving westwards or north-westwards at a rate of 20 or 30 miles per year. It is expected to be at the Channel coast before 1980. It can be carried by rats and bats and all sorts of other animals as well as by human beings. It is difficult to think of an animal which cannot carry it. If the disease continues to approach the Channel coast at its present rate it would seem that the State veterinary staff will have to be doubled or trebled by the deadline of 1980 or before in order to make even more rigorous and meticulous checks than operate today.

I would not query increased expenditure on that subject. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that the Bill is slightly misleading where it says that there will be no additional public expenditure in this respect. More public money should be spent in this direction and I hope that the Minister will say that not a penny will be spared in the fight against rabies.

The vets are busy in other ways. For example, in the West and South-West the Ministry vets are trying to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis. They have taken steps in certain parts to eliminate the badgers that normally live there. I have no doubt that the Minister will soon be reporting to the House on the success or failure of those experiments. If they fail, and if bovine tuberculosis becomes more prevalent in those areas, and perhaps spreads outwards, that may mean yet another demand on the State veterinary service.

Clause 1(3) refers to an order dealing with animals which
"are brought into Great Britain in such circumstances that they are not imported, within the meaning of this Act".
I take it to refer to animals in transit. If so, what is the position of the many passengers who pass through London Airport every day, travelling between countries on the African continent and, for instance, the United States, and who spend up to 12 or 24 hours in transit? What is the position of an animal in transit with its owner, passing through Britain from a part of the world where rabies is indigenous? Does the Bill give the Government the necessary power to make sure that this traffic is banned?

We are placing too much at risk if we permit animals to come into London Airport, if only for a short stay of an hour or two in the in-transit lounge, if they come from an area where rabies is suspected. The very least that I hope the Bill will do is to ensure that such animals are subject to veterinary inspection on arrival, and are not allowed to proceed if they are found to have any contagious or unpleasant disease.

I welcome the Bill, and am glad that the Government have introduced it.

11.44 p.m.

I am glad that once again the Bill has been shown to have all-party support. It was welcomed from the Opposition Front Bench, and the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) welcomed it on behalf of the Liberals. I am particularly glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) was able to take part in our discussions and give the Bill his general blessing. I shall deal as expeditiously as possible, with the points raised.

The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) and the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) raised the subject of psittacosis. I received a deputation consisting of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West and his constituents. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind words about our meeting. As a result of that meeting the Government set up a review. This is an important matter and a number of interests are involved. The culmination of that review was the Written Answer which I gave shortly after we last discussed the matter.

The hon. Member for Bodmin mentioned the position of the Department of Health and Social Security. There is no division with the Department. There was no intention to indicate that in the reply. We explained that the Department took the view that controls could not be justified on health grounds. There would be other claims for bans and controls on other diseases if it was accepted by the Department that there was justification for controls on health grounds.

The decision was taken on the basis of the problems of human health and the health of agriculture and poultry. On the basis of those considerations the Government decided that it would be right to introduce import controls. That is an important step. Hon. Members will want us to carry out full discussions with the trade, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other interested bodies. It is our intention to introduce these controls. The discussions now taking place will be completed by the summer. The order will be prepared by the late summer, and the intention is that it will come into force within a few months. There are a number of way of doing that. We are thinking in terms of issuing licences and of quarantine to be paid for by the importers of all birds brought into the country. That is important as that procedure was not followed previously. I expect hon. Members to be more than satisfied at the urgency with which we are tackling this important matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) raised a number of points. I emphasise that there is no running conflict on these matters between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Social Security. The Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for animal and poultry health. The Department of Health and Social Security is responsible for human health. I appreciate that there are areas where the interests of both Departments are involved. However, there is close consultation and co-operation between us on matters of mutual concern. Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, I cannot accept responsibility for human health matters, which fall within the remit of the Department of Health and Social Security. My hon. Friend referred to the importation of live animals. I assure him that positively all imported live poultry is quarantined under the present legislation.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that that applies to day-old chicks and eggs?

I will write to my hon. Friend about eggs and the questions he raised about bees, and the wider point. My hon. Friend did less than justice to himself when he described himself as a rather amateur bee-keeper. It is apparent to all hon. Members present that he has immense expertise and knowledge of these matters. He asked several specialised questions, and the best way to do justice to those questions is for me to write to him.

The hon. Member for Cardigan referred to sheep scab. National dipping is not required at present, but a dipping area has been designated in the southwest.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) mentioned several matters, some of which he had raised previously. In answer to him and to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) on the question of manpower, may I say that our first defence is Customs, and our veterinary officers provide the backup here. They are available for consultation with Customs on any animals that are considered to have been illegally landed. Although there is no additional manpower requirement for the purpose of implementing the Bill, we attach the highest importance to increasing the number of State veterinary officers.

When the Labour Government took over, our saddest inheritance in the Ministry of Agriculture was the position of the State Veterinary Service. There was a deplorable gap between the establishment and the number of vets in service. We are doing everything possible to recruit vets to get the number up to establishment as soon as possible. The salary relationship between the State sector and the private sector of the veterinary profession has never been better as a result of recent awards. Furthermore, the vets appreciate that we are doing everything we can to improve the job specification and the career prospects within the State Veterinary Service. I attach the highest importance to this, and we are tackling the matter with vigour and urgency.

I should like to take up the points made by a number of hon. Members about the important matter of rabies. I share the concern which has been expressed about the dangers from rabies. It was because of the urgent need to bring our defences against rabies up to date that the Rabies Act was passed last year to implement the recommendations in the Waterhouse Committee's report. The enabling powers in the Rabies Act have been implemented in two orders which came into operation in February. One of those orders deals with improved import controls and the other provides for comprehensive control measures to deal with outbreaks should they occur in Great Britain. It is for this reason that the Bill does not deal specifically with rabies, but brings up to date the general provisions covering the importation of animals and poultry and all potential carriers of animal diseases.

The new powers relating to rabies have been the subject of sustained publicity through the Press, radio and television. It is worth congratulating those people who have been directly concerned with seeking to maximise the publicity in the media for the measures which we are taking to bring home to the general public the urgency and importance of this matter. Anyone who saw the piece in The Times in May, read the feature piece in the Reader's Digest and heard and saw interviews on radio and television about this matter in recent months will appreciate the results that we have secured from issuing Press releases and efforts to get what might be described as free publicity for this important matter.

In addition, we have produced posters and leaflets. Appropriate multi-langauge posters have been distributed to airports and ports. These give graphic warning of the embargo on importing rabies susceptible animals without prior issue of an import licence requiring quarantine, and they carry a message in 13 different languages advising travellers of the importation regulations and the very serious penalties for breaches of them. Such penalties include up to one year's imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both, together with the possible destruc- tion of the animal illegally landed if no safe provisions can be made for it.

In addition to these posters, which are on display at airports, ports, ferries and at appropriate foreign exit points, other posters are on display at Crown post offices, veterinary surgeries and similar places.

I assure hon. Members that we attach great importance to maximising our defences against this threat. We will continue to be vigilant, to do what we can to make the public more aware of the situation, and to tighten up our lines of defence.

We can all recall instances in the past when we suffered such a scourge of animal disease from abroad. They have not been many. But now, in addition to what might be called the conventional disease risks, we have the problems posed by rapid air transport. A disease in the Far East today can be on our doorstep tomorrow. We know, too, that it could be transmitted by any one of innumerable possible carriers, animate and inanimate. This is the remorseless, growing threat to our livestock industry. For a hundred years our animal health legislation has been developed with the rationale that prevention is better than cure. I commend the Bill to the House as a measure worthy of its predecessors.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.