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3.30 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): I beg to move,

If asked about our quarantine regulations, the average person is likely to say that quarantine has kept us free from rabies, as such sentiments have become the received truth. The quarantine regulations have assumed the status of a comfort blanket in this country--they are solid and reassuring, rather like cricket and buttered crumpets. Down the years, the image has been created of an animal-loving and rabies-free nation, separated by a few miles of water from a continent seething with half-mad, vicious and slavering animals--and that is only the European Commissioners. Like so much of the jingoistic rubbish that one hears in this country, a critical examination of the situation reveals a different picture.

No live rabies virus has been isolated from the 1.75 million mammals imported into the United Kingdom since 1970, including 200,000 dogs and cats. There were two cases of rabies in imported dogs in 1983 and 1990, but in both cases the dogs had been infected deliberately and neither revealed any clinical symptoms. The only cases of active rabies brought into the United Kingdom during the past 17 years have been carried here by humans.

The defenders of the present system must answer this question--if no cases of rabies have been detected in quarantine in the past 25 years, why are we maintaining a quarantine system? The current policy is not scientifically led--it is based on prejudice and political expediency, and is more like voodoo than science. It is bad enough that the quarantine regulations are outmoded and unnecessary, but they cause genuine suffering to the animals that endure them and to owners forced to put their pets through the ordeal.

In the past 25 years, 170,000 families have put their pets through quarantine. As I have said, there have been no cases of rabies in quarantine during this period, yet 2,500 dogs have died in quarantine--about 10 animals a month. Some die after coming into contact with other animals in the kennels, which can be kept in fairly squalid conditions, while others simply die of loneliness. An animal that is parted from its loving family does not know that it is being put into quarantine, ostensibly for its own good--all it knows is that it has been dumped. It is not surprising that a number of those creatures unfortunately die.

Many die when they come out of quarantine, having picked up something during their incarceration. Judging by the standards of some kennels, that is not surprising. There is no statutory code covering quarantine kennels, but there is a voluntary code. But voluntary codes suffer from being unnecessary for the conscientious and useless for those who are not. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food approves kennels and makes quarterly visits, but it does so to check the security of the kennels and not to check animal welfare. The RSPCA has no right of access to kennels, and it is usually refused permission by the owners when it asks. It is not cheap to board out a pet in a quarantine kennel, since the kennel owners know that the owner has no option. The charges vary enormously--between £250 and £500 a month, or

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between £1,500 and £3,000 for six months. Conditions in the kennels vary between good and atrocious, and kennel owners vary from the conscientious to the crooked. Little wonder, then, that outside this country our system is regarded as a gulag for animals.

My Bill would institute a statutory code, enforced by the RSPCA, whose officials would be able to enter premises and prosecute on animal welfare grounds when they think necessary.

There is a great deal of disquiet about the United Kingdom's quarantine regulations among pet owners here and abroad, and the pressure for rational change is becoming irresistible. Our Agriculture Select Committee produced a report in 1994 calling for an overhaul of the system. The Committee recognised that there was no sense in maintaining quarantine for pets coming from rabies-free countries, provided that such animals came with vaccination records and other health certificates. That is, in effect, the pet passport system used in rabies-free countries such as Sweden and Norway, both of which have been rabies free for longer than the United Kingdom.

During questions to the Prime Minister today, he rightly called for scientific evidence to be used as the basis for decisions. He said that there was good scientific evidence against a beef ban. But there is also excellent scientific evidence from the European Commission to the effect that the quarantine system in this country is not efficient. A letter from Directorate-General VI states:

Both parties are being inconsistent. European Ministers are being inconsistent in the face of scientific advice with regard to the British beef ban; and this country is being inconsistent by maintaining quarantine regulations in the face of the best veterinary and scientific advice coming from the European Commission. Surely both parties should start being consistent.

Other countries have good rabies-free policies and have maintained them with pet passport systems. Australia and New Zealand are obvious examples; Japan is a rabies-free country and has no quarantine system.

The Swedish model offers a basis for advance. If a dog or cat is imported from an EU or European Free Trade Association country there are no quarantine requirements, provided that the animal has an import licence, an appropriate identification mark, a rabies vaccination and an antibody test and is accompanied by a vaccination certificate. For animals from outside such countries, quarantine is still a compulsory requirement. That is the model that the Select Committee recommended, with good scientific advice to back it up, but the Government threw out the recommendations.

I do not understand how we can keep this system and pretend that it really works. On top of the unnecessary cruelty of the system, there is the complete lack of consistency; it applies only to pets, not to animals brought here for sale. They require only the necessary licences and vaccination certificates, just like pet passports. There are

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no quarantine requirements for all the cattle moving in and out of this country, or for the horses that do likewise. Yet because these are warm-blooded animals, they are all capable of carrying rabies.

The Government are spending about £700,000 a year on scaring the public while allowing traded animals to come here and move around freely without being subject to quarantine requirements. That is ridiculously inconsistent.

Responsible pet owners ensure that their pets are vaccinated against rabies--and they have to put their pets into quarantine kennels. It does not make sense. The regulations unfairly affect tens of thousands of British citizens who work abroad, including diplomats, those in the armed forces--many of whom are returning to the United Kingdom from Germany and are in a quandary about quarantine--and those employed by British multinationals. The system makes no sense and it needs to be changed. Norway and Sweden have pet passports and they are concerned about rabies. Pet passports should be introduced in this country, and my Bill seeks to amend our quarantine regulations accordingly.

3.39 pm

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): I oppose the Bill. Dogs take up much of the time of the House because they are an important issue. Rabies still exists in some parts of Europe. Quarantine is effective and it works. My constituents in Dover are concerned about quarantine: first, they would be in the front line if dogs were able to roam as soon as they landed from ships and, secondly, many would lose their jobs. There are three excellent quarantine kennels in my constituency that employ 50 people directly and probably 50 people indirectly in looking after dogs.

There are between 70 and 80 quarantine kennels throughout the country and they employ some 1,000 people. It is a small but worthwhile industry. The industry is important because the alternative methods of preventing rabies in this country do not necessarily work and cannot be guaranteed. Rabies still exists in parts of Europe. The Agriculture Select Committee's fifth report of 1995 stated:

However, rabies exists throughout the world. It is estimated that there are 30,000 cases of rabies each year in India. Although rabies was eradicated in the United Kingdom in 1903, it made a brief reappearance in 1918 and 1922. Indeed, rabid dogs have been kept in quarantine. In 1992, in Europe there were 2,769 confirmed cases of rabies: 2,047 foxes, 126 cats and 90 dogs.

Although the number of rabies cases in the European Union has decreased, it has not yet been eradicated. At the present time, the best hope is for possible eradication by the turn of the century. The eradication of rabies means that more foxes are in existence and, as a consequence, that rabies would be easier to transmit than ever before if there is ever another outbreak in Europe.

Quarantine worked effectively between 1922 and 1969. There were only 27 cases of rabies in quarantine and the dogs were not released from the kennels before they died. Quarantine has worked and it is not unreasonably expensive. The cost of quarantine is paid by the dog

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owners. If it is a tax in any respect, it hits only the users of the service. If vaccination were used as an alternative to quarantine and if every dog in the country were vaccinated the cost would be enormously high. In addition, it would be almost impossible to police and to carry out.

The alternatives to quarantine do not work. Dogs have to be properly vaccinated before exposure to rabies and we cannot be certain that they will be properly vaccinated every time. Dogs have to satisfy a blood test before having a passport issued to them--if a pet passport is the proposed method. We have to check that that process takes place properly. One cannot be certain that a dog may be conclusively identified from its passport--some dogs, like some people, look alike. Under the passport system, dogs must have residency certificates but their accuracy cannot be guaranteed. The passport system requires owners to act honestly and in a disciplined manner. Owners would also incur additional expense.

In practice, the system would be adhered to only rarely. Many countries do not have reliable systems of enforcement. The House is often concerned that many of the laws passed by Brussels are not enforced properly. The introduction of pet passports, or Euro pet passports, to replace quarantine cannot be guaranteed to work. Only about a third of dogs in this country are licensed by their owners. Therefore, I do not believe that pet passporting would be adopted universally if the system were introduced.

Furthermore, the system may be illegal under European law as its enforcement would require the reintroduction of some form of border control. In Dover we are told perpetually that we cannot have border controls to prevent the smuggling of alcohol and other goods through customs. Therefore, I do not see how such controls could be reintroduced under the pet passport system.

Quarantine is enormously effective. It relies on an efficient licensing system, the proper transportation of animals by approved carriers and the notification of animals' arrival at a port. There is also a six-month observation period. For those reasons, quarantine is very good.

In conclusion, I oppose the Bill on the basis that there is no scientific case for relaxing quarantine. No scientific argument could guarantee that the United Kingdom would remain 100 per cent. rabies free if we were to abolish quarantine and introduce a system of pet passports. Therefore, I believe that the Bill should not be passed by the House.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tony Banks,Sir Andrew Bowden, Mr. Simon Hughes, Ms Diane Abbott, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Alan Meale, Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Paul Tyler and Mr. David Mellor.

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