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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Pet Travel Scheme (Pilot Arrangements) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2002

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Second Standing Committee

on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 8 January 2003

[Mr. Nigel Beard in the Chair]

Pet Travel Scheme (Pilot Arrangements) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2002

2.30 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Pet Travel Scheme (Pilot Arrangements) (England) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2002 (S.I. 2002, No. 2850).

It is always a surprise that we move the motion that the Committee has considered the statutory instrument when we are praying against it. However, I know that it is the correct procedure and it is an interesting and useful way in which to start our proceedings.

The effect of the statutory instrument is to extend the pet passports scheme to Canada and America, a move that Opposition Members welcome. We have always supported the pet passports scheme. Since it was introduced, about 75,000 cats, dogs and other small animals have used it to enter the United Kingdom. There is no real evidence of a significantly increased risk of rabies. As the Committee will know, the recent rabies case in Scotland was associated with bats and has no connection with the scheme. There are 75,000 happier pets in the United Kingdom now than before the scheme came into operation, and presumably 75,000 happier owners.

The extension of the scheme to America and Canada will mean 250 animals a month coming to this country from north America. I thank The Daily Telegraph for informing me that that includes the Bichon Frise, which belongs to the American ambassador's wife who will be one of the first people to use the scheme. A Bichon Frise looks very much like a poodle to me, but perhaps I should not have said that. I will now be scored off the excellent invitation list for 4 July, but I am glad that the ambassador's wife will use it and that 250 other people will, too.

None the less, several important questions must be asked about the consequences of the extension of the scheme to north America and Canada for animals and potentially for human health. Such questions are being asked in particular by the veterinary profession, which is why we prayed against the order. I hope that the Minister can answer some of them during this afternoon's short debate. I pay particular tribute to the British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association for their vigilance in the matter. They are worried about it. I pay tribute also to the Quarantine Association for its help in preparing for the debate.

The BVA has always been worried that PETS, as it is called, was introduced without its concerns and those of the Kennedy advisory group on rabies and quarantine being met in full. It is particularly concerned about the preparations being rushed and

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about inadequate arrangements made for monitoring the animals after they have been admitted to the United Kingdom. I quote from the BVA's Veterinary Record. At the beginning of December, its editorial stated:

    ''As previously, the scheme is being moved forward before all the necessary arrangements are in place. This is demonstrated by the fact that, although the Government has announced that dogs and cats from the USA and Canada can enter the UK under PETS from December 11, it has still to agree a route into the country with airlines, and the official certification—a vital component of the scheme—has still to be agreed with the US and Canadian authorities . . . given the complexity of the PETS documentation and differences in microchip standards between North America and Europe, the potential for confusion is great''.

While we welcome the scheme, it is important that it is introduced with due care. We hope that any possible teething problems in its introduction will by now have been ironed out. I hope that the Minister can assure us about that matter.

Leaving aside those teething troubles, there is a more substantive problem that we should discuss. Naturally, I accept the rabies risk assessment carried out by Edinburgh university, which is published on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website, and which concludes that the increased risk of importing rabies as a result of extending the scheme to north America is relatively small.

None the less, we must remember that before the pet passport scheme was introduced, there was a risk of one case of rabies in the United Kingdom every 36 years. That is an insignificant number, but that used to be the case. After the introduction of the scheme, the risk increased to one case every 28 years. Now that the scheme is being extended to include north America, the risk is one case every 24 years—an increased risk of four cases a century or 25 per cent.

North America is the only place in the scheme where rabies is endemic, which is presumably why it was not included initially. In 2000—the last year for which statistics are available—there were 7,369 reported cases of rabies, 509 of which involved domestic animals—a substantial number—and an average of two human deaths a year from rabies in the United States. Rabies is endemic in every state with the sole exception of Hawaii, which has extensive protection measures in place to prevent the spread of the disease.

Although we accept the extension of the scheme, we should be concerned about the slightly increased risk from rabies. For that reason, I will press the Minister on the Government's rabies contingency plan. We know that there is such a thing—the Kennedy report mentions it—but we know precious little about it, which is odd in this era of freedom of information. Will the Minister publish the rabies contingency plan, or take this opportunity to answer questions about it? He can write to me with any answers that he does not have to hand.

When was the plan last updated? Has it ever been rehearsed on a national scale, and, if not, would it not be opportune to do so now? If there is such a plan, dog wardens, local veterinary practices, local authorities and other relevant bodies should be involved in its

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rehearsal. Otherwise, we will not know whether it will work.

We need to know what roles the State Veterinary Service and private veterinarians would play in diagnosing and controlling a rabies outbreak, and what recent instructions the Government have given to vets about the diagnosis and monitoring of the disease. Are we certain that vets in the countryside know how to recognise rabies? Are human and animal vaccines readily available to vets throughout the country?

In the aftermath of the recent bat-related rabies case in Scotland, DEFRA published guidance notes for practising veterinary surgeons about rabies, which are very helpful. However, the guidance does not cover protection against rabies for the professionals who may be exposed to it. It does not say how the vets, their receptionists and nurses can protect themselves. Surely, it is only reasonable that free vaccination against rabies should be offered to such people on the NHS. It is odd that there is an increased risk to the veterinary profession, but no free vaccination against it. The Minister should take the matter up with colleagues in the Department of Health. Although not everyone concerned would want free vaccination, some may take the opportunity to have it.

More importantly, will the Minister confirm that the contingency plan assumes that a rabies outbreak would occur in a rural area, which is unlikely to happen? PETS means that an outbreak is much more likely to occur in an urban area and the explosion in the urban fox population means that the disease would travel much more quickly. We need to know that he has plans in place to handle an outbreak, whether in the countryside or in a town. If there were an outbreak in a town, and there is a strong likelihood of that, we need to know what he would do about it. Would he allow the use of strychnine on urban foxes? By what means would he control urban foxes if there were to be an outbreak of rabies in a town? We need to know how he intends to kill urban foxes under such conditions. The Minister and I have been exchanging thoughts on that matter in the context of the Hunting Bill.

What would the hon. Gentleman do about rats and ferrets? I am told that ferrets have become an increasingly popular pet in towns, although I cannot imagine why, and they are, of course, prone to rabies. Does the plan include the compulsory sequestration of millions of urban pets? Presumably, that would have to be done. Let us imagine, for example, that there were a significant rabies outbreak in London, where there are large numbers of dogs. Would he not have some plan in place to sequester dogs and cats?

Is the Minister concerned about the sharp decline in the number of quarantine kennels? Before PETS was introduced there were 81 and 28 of those have closed, mainly because of that scheme. The extension of the scheme to north America will mean the closure of a further 25 kennels. Some 300 jobs have already gone and more will follow. Is the Minister concerned about the fact that we do not have enough quarantine kennels to handle the numbers of dogs that would have to be sequestered in the event of such an

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outbreak? Might it be sensible for him to keep some quarantine kennels available as a contingency reserve?

Incidentally, is not it right that there should be some sort of compensation scheme for quarantine kennels that have been put out of business as a direct result of the Government introducing the PETS scheme? The Minister was, after all, responsible for PETS. In a similar situation, the Government compensated fur farmers when they went out of business. Would it not be reasonable for the Government to compensate quarantine kennels that have been put out of business simply as a result of Government intervention?

The publication and updating of the rabies contingency plan is an eminently reasonable request. In the light of the extension of the pet scheme to an area such as north America, where rabies is endemic, I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to announce that he will do exactly that. The likelihood of someone contracting rabies is satisfactorily low, but if the foot and mouth disease shambles taught us anything, it ought to have taught us to prepare for the worst in the hope that it never happens.

Leaving rabies aside, the BVA and the BSAVA are concerned that even if the risk from rabies is containable, not enough attention has been given to other infectious diseases in small animals that may be brought into the UK as a result of the extension of the PETS scheme to north America. The Edinburgh university risk assessment took no account of other diseases, such as brucella canis, leishmania infantum, West Nile fever, and tick-borne ehrlichial and rickettsial pathogens. I fear that I do not know what those are, but I have been told that there is a risk that they may be introduced from America and Canada. I hope that the Minister will tell us why the Government chose to have no risk assessment on those diseases.

Why are the Government not imposing the same tick treatment for north America as we do for other countries? Australia and America will not admit animals that suffer from ehrlichia canis and the United States currently carries out surveillance of its own population for the zoonotic ehrlichioses and rickettsioses. Should the Government not do something similar to Australia and New Zealand? We need mandatory, targeted, active surveillance of animals that are brought in under the scheme to protect not only indigenous human and pet populations, but to prevent the formation of wildlife reservoir populations.

Is it true that the Government have introduced what they describe as a ''cheap and cheerful'' system of passive surveillance that relies entirely on clinicians? Some clinicians might not have seen some of the exotic diseases and it would be wrong to rely on them. Surely it is reasonable for the Government to bring in a system of pro-active surveillance, including the blood testing of all animals that enter the UK or that are presented for a rabies booster vaccination, and some surveillance of them for up to three years. Will the Government agree to a pro-active systematic surveillance of animals brought in under the PETS scheme to ensure that the risks that I have described can be avoided?

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The chief veterinary officer's recent report into veterinary surveillance of farm animals could surely be extended to cover wild and companion animals in greater detail. We want to know how domestic animals are to be monitored and who is to pay for it. The Minister must give some attention to those details; that would be welcomed by the veterinary profession, which is concerned about such matters.

Although we welcome the pet passport scheme and broadly welcome its extension to the USA and Canada, we have some reservations and questions that we hope that the Minister will answer. What steps has he taken to ensure the smooth extension of the scheme, to iron out its teething problems and to ensure that the same thing does not happen if the scheme is extended in future? The scheme must be extended in a smooth and sensible way.

Given that the Minister accepts that there is a slightly increased—but still very small—risk of rabies, will he publish and update the Government's rabies contingency plan? Will he urgently consider the other diseases that might be introduced into the country as a result of the extension to north America? BSE and foot and mouth disease should remind him of the dangers of tampering with nature and of letting our guard slip with regard to animal diseases. We seek his assurance that the statutory instrument will not allow us to do so.

2.46 pm

 
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