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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I do not accept any criticism of Professor Kennedy and his committee. The committee was not expected to report in the new year since the membership was announced only shortly before Christmas. Its members have worked very hard and very fast. They have been dealing particularly with the complex area of risk assessment. A number of Members of this House have expressed the need for more scientific risk assessment on other issues. The committee has devoted a good deal of time to that. Given the extensive and serious nature of its report--the fact that six options of risk and cost benefit are being considered--I believe that it will prove to be a valuable report. The committee has worked very hard indeed.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, as a trial, will the Government consider allowing properly vaccinated, blood-tested and micro-chipped pets of British

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servicemen and their families in Cyprus to return home without quarantine? Cyprus is rabies free. The present situation is causing great distress to these service families.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the options being examined centrally include whether to use a system of identification, vaccination and blood testing. The report will give the committee's views on the relative risks involved. If that method is adopted, it should apply to all animals and not exempt groups such as servicemen with pets. As regards Cyprus, our current legislation, which has been in operation for nearly a century, is a blanket measure. One reason why it is difficult to make exemptions for particular countries is that, although they may claim to be rabies free, we have no control over where dogs or cats may have come from en route via Cyprus.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, can the Minister think of any good reason why successive governments have failed to make an exception for blind people and others who are severely physically impaired, preventing them from bringing their guide dogs into this country, even with proper vaccination certificates, so that when they come here they are unaided by their animals, which are treated as pets? Can the Minister give an assurance that, whatever else happens, there will be speedy consideration of the need to consider that category of person?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the committee has consulted all the relevant associations which deal with guide dogs for the blind and the deaf. The good reason was that the existing policy was a blanket measure without exemptions. It was considered that any exemptions were a risk and that it was conceivable that a dog to guide a blind person might have been as exposed as any other dog. That is why the committee is looking urgently at alternatives. Perhaps I should declare an interest on this. I have a most beautiful and wicked Jack Russell.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that the policy established 30 years ago has kept rabies out of this country?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. That is why the existing policy is one of the six options being examined and assessed in terms of its risk and the relativity of the other options. If the other options have no more risk than the present one, we shall look at them with interest.

Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether he is having parallel discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic, bearing in mind that the only land border between the United Kingdom and any other country is the one between the North and South of Ireland and, as we are well aware for many other reasons, it is not secure?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the noble Viscount is quite right. Throughout our reconsideration of policy we

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have kept in close consultation with the Irish Republic. Our officials have discussed the matter with Irish officials. In April I was in the Republic discussing this and other matters with the Irish Minister of Agriculture at the time of the Listowel and Leopardstown races.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, the Minister promised us the report very shortly. How short is "very shortly"?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, "very shortly" is very soon.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, will my noble friend give the House an absolute assurance that if the quarantine regulations are to be relaxed in any way whatever, it will be only on the basis that there is no conceivable chance of any rabid animal getting into this country under any circumstances?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I do not believe that anyone could give that assurance. One cannot give it under the present system. There have been cases of rabid dogs imported under the present system. Our position is that if there is a change, it shall not significantly increase the risk to public health. That is the basis on which the system is being assessed.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, is the Minister aware that circus animals from abroad are treated differently from guide dogs for the blind?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, traded and commercial animals operate under their own regulations under the Balai agreement. I do not know whether the noble Baroness is referring to that. Animals for research are treated differently, but they each have strong regulation. In many respects the trade in commercial animals is as strict or stricter.

Derbyshire Magistrates' Courts

3.6 p.m.

Lord Methuen asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What benefits they expect to accrue from the centralisation of magistrates' courts at four locations in Derbyshire, and how they expect defendants and witnesses to attend, given the paucity of public transport in parts of Derbyshire.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, this Question would be better directed to the Derbyshire Magistrates' Courts Committee than to me. These decisions are taken at local level. The proposed changes to the magistrates' courts structure in Derbyshire derive from a scheme prepared by the Derbyshire Magistrates' Courts Committee after consultation with Derbyshire County Council, the paying authority, under Section 56 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997.

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Appeals by the county council against the proposed closures lie to me under Section 56(3) of the Act. Appeals have been entered. I have, however, yet to receive full statements of the cases of both the county council and the magistrates' courts committee. When I receive them I will consider them and come to my decisions. Meanwhile, it is obviously not appropriate for me to say anything further while the appeals are outstanding.

Lord Methuen: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his reply. Is he aware of the very substantial objection to these proposals, particularly in west Derbyshire, where the four existing magistrates' courts will be closed leaving people to travel great distances at great disadvantage? Will he please bear that in mind when he comes to his decision?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I shall be aware of the full grounds when I receive them. Obviously, I shall consider them fully.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor accept that if the people of west Derbyshire did not commit crime it would be possible to close all the magistrates' courts?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I shall resist any temptation to pre-judge the issues on these appeals.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor tell us how many other areas of the country have similar appeals currently outstanding? I am conscious that in West Yorkshire there are proposals to close Keighley and Bingley magistrates' court with similar problems of family courts being held further away from where parents and children may be willing to travel. There are similar problems of public transport. Can the noble and learned Lord say whether it is a general problem throughout the country or are these two exceptional cases?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, no. There are quite a few appeals. I shall write to the noble Lord with full details of those that are outstanding and those decided over the past 12 months.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that in rural Wales there have been many complaints about the courts being centralised? Is he further aware that a great deal of public and private money has been lost through cases having to be adjourned because of defendants and witnesses failing to arrive at court owing to lack of public transport?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I repeat that these are matters for local decision, subject to appeal to me.

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When the appeals come to me, if I consider it right to allow them, I shall; if I consider it wrong to allow them, I shall dismiss them.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, following the noble and learned Lord's comments about awaiting representation from the magistrates' courts committee, may I advise him that this weekend I was in contact with someone who expressed great concern about the closure of some of these magistrates' courts, especially as Derbyshire is such a spread out and rural area? Indeed, some 30 bus companies cover the area. Is it not possible to update some of the existing courts to save people having to travel? Courts are best supported and made more available to people if they are sited in the local community. Derbyshire is predominantly rural and it is difficult for people to get to the courts.

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