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5 Feb 2003 : Column 409—continued

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful case against this dismal

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proposal. Does he agree that the Government would have been far better occupied in trying to deal with the appalling conditions in which tens of thousands of horses are shipped to France for food consumption, rather than monkeying around with British horses and ponies, which are already kept to a very high standard?

Mr. Cameron: That is absolutely right. In fact, what the Government are suggesting could make matters worse, because if we have more of these passports more horses could find themselves transported in horrible conditions right the way across Europe. That is what the Government system will make possible.

Perhaps the Minister could tell us what progress other European countries have made in implementing the directive. I suspect that we all know the answer.

My fourth and final question was whether the Government had fully understood all the drawbacks of the proposed compulsory system. I think that the answer again is a solid "No".

The first drawback is the cost. There are estimates that the passports will cost around £20 each, or perhaps a little more. There are estimates of 850,000 horses in the UK. So even if half already have passports—and they do not—that is around £9 million of new cost.

The situation could be much worse. If every horse will need a vet's examination before the passport is issued, the cost could be as much as £100. Think of the small riding school or livery stable. They suffered from foot and mouth disease, because they could not go off the roads. They are desperately worried about the Hunting Bill, and now they have this.

Mrs. Hayes has a riding stables near Lincoln. She has 16 horses. She believes that the system could cost her £1,600. That is a lot of money for a small business. Another owner of a BHS and ABRS-approved riding centre has written to me saying that

The Pony Club is thoroughly depressed about the measure. It wrote to me about

The British Driving Association, which represents 15,000 people and 30,000 horses, makes the point that the cost of employing a vet will rise. It states:

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that the people who are most likely to go through all the palaver and pay all the costs will be the responsible horse owners, who should not be checked on in the first place?

Mr. Cameron: My hon. Friend is entirely right. There will be people who have owned horses for many years, but will not comply. As a result, it will be those horses that suffer—a point that I shall deal with at the end of my speech.

British Dressage makes with great vigour its point about the situation in which vets will be placed. What will happen if an animal does not have a passport?

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The owner may feel prohibited from calling a vet, so the horse will suffer. Alternatively, the owner might go to the black market to get the drugs, so the horse could be mistreated. If a proper vet is called, he or she might feel inhibited about administering drugs that cannot be written into a passport. What happens if somebody is out riding without their passport and they have an accident? The Palomino Society asks:

It goes on to say

There is also the situation that could occur at the end of a horse's life. As I said, there will be two types of passport. The first says that the equid is not for human consumption. The second, with all the drugs information, will allow the animal to enter the human food chain. What happens if the horse changes ownership? The horse with the first type of passport, which cannot possibly go to the slaughterhouse, might be dumped or let loose because the alternatives, such as incineration, can be expensive. The situation could be even worse. As one respondent to my trawling exercise said:

We do not want that to happen.

There is much evidence that animal welfare will suffer. The Shetland Pony Society told me that many people will

What about horses that need certain medicines, but whose owners are worried about their being entered on to the passport towards the end of those horses' lives? As the British Driving Society puts it:

How will the new bureaucracy work? What steps have the Government taken to consult local authorities? After all, they will be policing the new power. Are we really going to have another new group of snoopers and inspectors? Finally, will the compulsory system be implemented fairly? The ABRS has said that it is inequitable because

They will be pursued by the councils.

Some groups that back passports would support them only if the Minister agreed to go even further. The National Equine Welfare Council supports the policy only if it is

The International League for the Protection of Horses agrees. It concludes:

Mr. Soames rose—

Mr. Cameron: I shall not give way, as I believe that I am running a little short of time.

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In conclusion, I ask the Minister to set all those drawbacks and disadvantages against the perceived benefits and ask himself whether the case is made for a compulsory system. What is the mischief? What is the problem that we are trying to overcome? In this country, there is not really a problem, because we do not eat horses, so why the extra cost? I end where I began—with a plea about bureaucracy, regulation and this Government. My heart sank the other day when I read that the Government now have a Minister for the horse—it is probably this Minister—and even an official for the horse. Indeed, I can see three of them sitting in the loose boxes. The press release announcing those appointments said:

I would say to the Minister that, frankly, the horse is doing fine without him, so please do not start regulating, bureaucratising and strangling the creature. We in this country have a vibrant economy of stables, schools, breeders, businesses and ventures. Let them thrive. We now have half as many DEFRA officials as farmers. As regulation rises, the prospects for farmers fall, so please do not go there. I ask the Minister: please, think again.

8.30 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael): I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on obtaining this debate and providing the opportunity to illuminate the issue of horse passports. I cannot congratulate him quite so enthusiastically on the way in which he opened the debate; he appeared to be trying to audition for the role of pantomime dame, with a sort of childish chorus around him lead by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). That is the sort of jocular attempt to ridicule anything that is being done that one occasionally expects from the Europhobes on the Opposition Benches. I was particularly surprised about the criticism of the British Horse Society.

Mr. Cameron: I hope that the amount of time that I spent listening to people involved in the industry was obvious from the amount of material that I cited, and all I ask of the Minister—he probably cannot answer all my questions now—is that he take the issue seriously, because it will affect a lot of our constituents. I did not make any jocular reference, and I hope that he will not do so. Let us just get on with the issue.

Alun Michael: I was referring to the hon. Gentleman's manner; he did not sound very serious.

Mr. Soames: Nonsense.

Alun Michael: I am sorry but the hon. Member for Witney should expect criticism if he introduces a debate as he did.

The hon. Gentleman also criticised the fact that we now have a Minister for the horse and an official for the horse. The first Minister for the horse was Lord Donoughue, who has always been passionate about the place of the horse in British society, and it was a good initiative. However, when I took over the responsibility

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on becoming a DEFRA Minister, I found that ministerial enthusiasm was not matched by official back-up in the Department. I felt that it was important that officials should have the expertise needed to work with the industry.

The hon. Gentleman sought to ridicule that initiative, but it was strongly welcomed by organisations such as the British Horse Society, the British Equine Federation and many others, because they realised that the Government are seeking to work with the industry to try to ensure that the possible contribution to British society and the rural economy is developed.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned something that I suggest needs a lot of careful thought: he said that some of the organisations that have spoken to him have proposed using microchips, rather than the passport option. The problem is that we have to meet the requirements of the European legislation, which is very specific on the nature of the passport. There is something in the microchip option, and I have some sympathy with those in the industry who have pointed in that direction. Of course, there are parts of the industry that use that technique without its being compulsory in any way, but we have to meet the requirements.

A full consultation exercise on introducing horse passports was carried out in the summer of 2000. The main objective of the legislation is to provide assurance across Europe that horses that have been administered with medicines that have not been authorised for use in food-producing animals cannot be slaughtered for human consumption. A degree of certainty was being sought in introducing that legislation.

In deciding how to implement the measure, the Government listened to the concerns of the equine industry and acted accordingly. Full implementation of the new legislation—whereby all horses are required to have a passport, not just those entering the human food chain—received the support of the majority of those in the equine industry, who view it not only as a safety measure to prevent horses administered with prohibited medicines from entering the food chain, but as a way of improving the breeding and welfare of horses.

The Government therefore announced on 14 February 2002 that all horses will have to have a passport to bring the UK in line with European legislation. We set an implementation date of 31 December 2003. Part of the reason for doing that was to give the industry full opportunity to plan and prepare for that implementation date. I emphasise the fact that the UK must comply with the legislation. This is a case not of regulation being imposed on the industry, but of the Government listening to the industry on how EU legislation should be implemented in this country.

The Government agreed with the industry's wishes that passports should continue to be issued by the various private sector organisations, particularly the breed societies that have been issuing horse passports for years.

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