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5 Feb 2003 : Column 406—continued



Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation),

Family Law

Question agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I propose to put together the Questions on the three proceeds of crime motions.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation),

Proceeds of Crime

Question agreed to.

5 Feb 2003 : Column 407

Horse Passports

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

8.13 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I start from the proposition that it is an essential duty of Government to try to minimise the bureaucracy that our constituents must deal with in their daily lives. I want Ministers to get out of bed every day and ask, "How can I make life easier? What rule can I scrap today?" The saga of horse passports would seem to suggest that today's Ministers get out of bed each day and do precisely the opposite.

By the end of December, all horses, ponies and donkeys will have to have a passport. It is not for travelling or for sale or purchase; it is just for existing. There are no exceptions. As one newspaper put it,

Let us clear about where that requirement came from. European Commission decision 93/623 required registered horses born after 1998 to be accompanied by a passport when they are moved. The intention was to simplify the trade in pure-bred horses. Commission decision 2000/68 amended that decision to ensure that horses treated with certain drugs did not enter the food chain. Under that decision, all horses will require a passport setting out all medicines taken if the horse is ultimately intended for human consumption.

The Government decided after consultation to implement the directive by introducing a compulsory system of passports for all horses, backed by fines of up to £5,000 or six months' imprisonment. Four questions need to be answered. Is a passport scheme necessary, did the Government consult properly, is their proposal on implementing the decision the right one, and have they fully understood the drawbacks of their scheme? [Hon. Members: "No."] My hon. Friends pre-empt me: the answer is no to all four questions.

The Government should have fought the scheme to a standstill in Europe. Pigs and sheep do not have passports. Cows now have passports, but they do not include any information about drugs. At the abattoir, the farmer is simply asked whether any drugs that could enter the food chain have been administered in the past six months. The same procedure could apply to horses, especially in countries such as the UK, where the overwhelming majority of horses never enter the food chain—and a very good thing too. European countries such as France that eat horse flesh import much of it from countries outside the European Union. Will this bureaucratic nonsense be imposed on those countries? Of course not. The EU decision will not even serve the purpose it is intended to serve; it should have been resisted.

Will the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life pledge to prevent other such proposals? It would be ridiculous to have passports for every animal that is reared for, or may conceivably end up in, the food chain, including chickens, ducks and pigs. Farmers who are suffering under dreadful bureaucracy will want a clear answer.

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I do not believe that the Government consulted adequately. The press release from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that announced the compulsory passport proposal said that

My evidence is that the situation is much more complex. I have received submissions from a large number of organisations that either oppose passports or believe that the Government have got it badly wrong, including the British Palomino Society, the Donkey Breed Society, the National Equine Welfare Council, the Pony Club, British Dressage, the Association of British Riding Schools and many others.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I am president of the Association of British Riding Schools and a former consultant to the BHIC. The association opposes the proposal, and the BHIC, which DEFRA cites as being in favour of the proposal, is split down the middle. Two members are in favour, two against.

Mr. Cameron: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and shall talk later about the response that the ABRS has given me.

I cannot claim that I have conducted a consultation on the same scale as the Government or the BHIC. However, some of the bodies I have mentioned were not listed in the British Equestrian Federation consultation—that was supposed to be part of the BHIC's work. The Donkey Breed Society said that

Some organisations involved in the consultation have major misgivings, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said. Some of the organisations have many thousands of members. The Association of British Riding Schools, for example, represents 65,000 horses; the Pony Club has 33,000 members. That is just the organisations—how much does the ordinary owner of a horse, pony or donkey know about the plans? I conducted a telephone survey of small livery yards and riding schools in my constituency, and their answer was, "Virtually nothing."

I have a nagging doubt about the approach of the BHIC, which is focused on the top end of the industry, and works with the British Horseracing Board and the Thoroughbred Breeders Association. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) knows, those organisations are vital. However, racehorse owners have always had a lot of paperwork. I am concerned about the small owners, people who own a horse for hacking, keep a mule as a pet, or have a pony for the children. The British Horse Society, attempting to justify the introduction of compulsory passports, said:

I simply do not believe that that is a solid justification for this sort of bureaucracy. If I were to be unkind, I would call it slightly self-serving. The ABRS said that

5 Feb 2003 : Column 409

the consultation was seriously flawed, and called the BHIC "unrepresentative and undemocratic". I cannot say for certain whether it is right, but I ask the Minister what he will do to seek assurances about this matter before he goes ahead with this misguided compulsory scheme.

My third question was whether the Government have got it right in bringing in a compulsory system. The DEFRA press release gives three justifications for the compulsory system.

First, it says,

I have to tell the Minister that the reverse could be the case. If owners do not obtain a passport, they may find it very difficult to get treatment from a vet, and they may find it very difficult to find someone who will take the horse at the end of its life.

Secondly, the Government claim—and this is extraordinary—that the system could help cut the over-breeding of wild ponies. I find that hard to believe. One would have thought that wild ponies would have to be exempt from compulsory passports, but apparently not. The vision of local authority inspectors chasing across Dartmoor trying to check that two mating ponies have the correct paperwork is one to which I cannot do full justice—perhaps the Minister can do so when he replies.

Thirdly, according to the Government, having all horses registered would help the equine industry to use the breeding data to improve the quality of the British herd. All that I can say to that is "Oh, please!" The herd, if one can use such a phrase for such a diverse group of animals, is permanently improving anyway. The breeding of great racehorses, the saving of rare breeds and the production of great hunters have happened for decades, even centuries, without the need for wretched passports.

In fact, the opposite could happen. The Shetland Pony Association states:

There are alternatives to a compulsory system. We should start from the proposition that the vast majority of British horses will not enter the human food chain. As the website "Saddle-up" puts it,

I ask the Minister to look again at this issue.

Could, at the very least, the Select Committee be asked to carry out a quick inquiry, take evidence and make a recommendation?

It may be worth considering the solution offered by the Spotted Pony Society, which I consider to be right. It suggests a simple order stating:

That would satisfy the directive; no more, no less.

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