The Governments aim is to prevent the entry of rabies into this country. I do not accept that an outbreak is inevitable, but we have made contingency plans to enable us to stamp out any outbreak which might occur despite all our efforts.
The rabies legislation is designed to strengthen our defences against the illegal entry of animals. This involves the combined effort of the Ministry, Customs and Excise, the police and the local authorities, and the active support of the public. We are constantly reviewing ways and means to strengthen our defences still further.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that if rabies became established in Britain it would be a direct menace to the health of the nation and be seriously divisive as between those citizens who own animals and those who do not? In those circumstances, will the Government consider setting up a Select Committee to study the whole problem of how to combat this dreadful disease?
The hon. Gentleman's suggestion for the setting up of a Select Committee should be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I agree with him that it would be a disaster if rabies became endemic in this country. We introduced yesterday an awareness campaign. We have, first, to make sure that the public know what the danger is and avoid bringing the disease into this country through pets, which is the way it is most likely to happen.
Does not continental experience show that foxes are great carriers of rabies? If the disease ever came to this country, would not the control of foxes be necessary and should not the Department be giving far more financial support, for example, to fox destruction societies, some of which operate in my part of the world? Is the Minister aware that many foxes breed on Forestry Commission land?
I agree that foxes are the main vector of this disease on the Continent, and I am happy to consider the hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion. I assure him that we have plans well worked out for taking action in an infected area, should one be designated. In extreme situations, that might involve the killing of the local fox population.
The Opposition support the Minister's latest efforts to deal with the threat of rabies. Is he aware that we believe that the existing penalties are insufficient, and that anyone who attempts to smuggle into the country animals that are likely to introduce rabies should be subject to a prison sentence without the option? Will the Minister please implement that suggestion?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his remarks. The average level of fine has increased significantly since we increased the maxima, but, as I said yesterday, in my view the courts and magistrates are still not taking sufficient advantage of the higher limits.