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Reform Of Quarantine Regulations

Volume 301: debated on Tuesday 25 November 1997

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5.5 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to allow the importation of pet animals from the European Union and rabies-free countries without quarantine upon proof of vaccinations, blood tests and permanent identification by microchip; to improve standards in quarantine kennels; and for connected purposes.
The word "rabies" undoubtedly brings terror into people's minds. It is an awful disease. Each year, between £720,000 and £760,000 is spent on actively encouraging the existing system. It seemed rather bizarre, then, that when I recently visited a number of quarantine kennels I observed owners in the cages with their animals kissing and cuddling them. That seemed to me to defeat the object of quarantine.

Rabies was eradicated from the United Kingdom in 1922 and is fast disappearing from the rest of the European Union. It is often claimed that the controls that have been used for the past 100 years have served us well. However, a critical examination of the facts reveals that the current arrangements for pet quarantine, as stipulated in the Rabies (Control) Order 1974, are outdated, unnecessary and in need of urgent reform.

In the past 25 years, 1.7 million mammals, including 200,000 cats and dogs, have entered the United Kingdom. In 1983 and 1990, two cases of suspected rabies were reported in kennels in the United Kingdom, but in both cases the dogs had been deliberately infected with a live vaccine. Neither had revealed any clinical symptoms. Those facts are in the public domain. The only cases of rabies in Britain in the past 18 years have been carried here by humans.

Those who defend the present system need to answer the following question. If no cases of rabies have been detected in quarantine in the past 25 years, why are we maintaining the present system? They will no doubt argue that there is no sufficient scientific basis for reforming the existing system. Besides, they will point to the fact that the current controls have operated successfully. I believe that those points are contentious, because developments in science in recent years have presented an overwhelming case for change.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed that modern inactivated vaccines are both safe and effective for cats and dogs. According to last year's report by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 72 per cent. of the population believe that the vaccination system would be an acceptable alternative to quarantine. Vaccinations have a duration of one year and need to be renewed annually. Microchips, I am delighted to say, can now be implanted into a cat or dog at an early age. Microchips are now recognised according to world standards.

No argument for change can be considered without reflecting on the risk assessment. Such an assessment has not been undertaken in Britain, although I welcome the decision of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, announced this autumn, to establish a panel of experts headed by Professor Ian Kennedy, to look into the matter. I understand that he is the only person to have been appointed to the panel so far. We should examine carefully the assessment made by the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture. It is particularly pertinent. It tells us that quarantine based on a six-month period of isolation has an 11 per cent. failure rate, whereas a method based on vaccination has only a 6 per cent. failure rate.

In the past 25 years, 170,000 families have put their pets through quarantine. A total of 2,500 pets have died during that period, which represents roughly 10 animals a month, and in the past five years, 735 cats and dogs have died in quarantine. All those animals are loved by their owners and are greatly missed.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that quarantine can cause some animals, especially dogs, to stop eating and to stop drinking. Many die when they come out, having picked up something during the isolation period. Judging by the standard of some kennels, that is hardly surprising, because there is no statutory code covering standards in kennels. There is a voluntary code, under which the Ministry makes quarterly visits and approves kennels' licences, but the emphasis on security is uppermost— certainly not welfare.

I am advised by all the interested parties that conditions in kennels vary considerably. The cost of putting an animal into quarantine varies from £1,500 to £3,000. I believe that my Bill would remedy some of those matters, especially the very high charges.

Other countries have successful rabies-free policies. Forty-eight countries are rabies-free. We should also reflect on the successful change that Sweden made in its quarantine laws three years ago.

On top of all the unnecessary cruelty of the current system, not to mention the inconvenience to pet owners, there is a complete lack of consistency because it applies only to pets, not to animals that have been brought to the United Kingdom for sale. They require only the necessary licences and vaccination certificates, just like pet passports. There are no quarantine requirements for all the cattle moving in and out of this country, which makes no sense as the animals are all warm-blooded and capable of carrying rabies. In effect, the existing system allows traded animals to enter the country and move around freely without being subject to quarantine requirements.

Responsible pet owners ensure that their pets are vaccinated against rabies, but they are still forced to put their pets into quarantine. The regulations affect tens of thousands of British people who work abroad, including diplomats, those in the armed forces, holidaymakers and the blind.

I am obliged to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the pet passport organisation, the Kennel Club and many other organisations for their advice on these matters, and I suppose that I am also inspired by my black labrador puppy, Michael. Eighty-six per cent. of the population would like a change.

I am delighted to see the Home Secretary in his place. I am not challenging the Government's intentions in this matter but, with the best will in the world, it will be a very long time before effective legislation is in place so, as we approach Christmas, I appeal to the Government to reflect on what I have said, and on the views of the former Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr. Chris Patten, and of Lord Waddington. Those former colleagues seem to have changed their minds on the matter, and I was especially moved by the noble Lord, who told the other place that his dog died two days after it was released from quarantine.

I am not necessarily looking for charity in this matter, but I am looking for charity from the Government before Christmas, and I believe that this limited measure would give some relief.

I intend, not to destroy Britain's reputation as a rabies-free country, but to prevent the cruelty, suffering and inconvenience that pets and their loving families experience when they enter the United Kingdom. Pet passports should be introduced into this country. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Amess, Mr. Ivor Caplin, Mr. Alan Clark, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. John Heppell, Mr. Robert Key, Mr. Terry Lewis, Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Colin Pickthall, Sir Teddy Taylor and Miss Ann Widdecombe.