Horse Passports (England) Regulations 2003

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Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite the fact that the passport-issuing authorities may provide cheaper passports for charitable organisations that look after the welfare of horses and donkeys, there is a downside in the fact that the scheme will put an additional burden and responsibility on those charities? Instead of concentrating on the welfare of the horse, they will have to concentrate on more and more regulation and paperwork.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Horse welfare organisations and horse sanctuaries are often run on a shoestring. Having in their fields 100 or more horses or donkeys for which they suddenly have to pay out £15, £20 or £30 per animal is likely to make it much more difficult for them to operate. The Minister must take account of that point, which was also made by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

I am by no means convinced that there is any welfare upside in passports, but there may well be a significant welfare downside. The clever people who thought up the scheme would say, ''Well, all right—it's not about veterinary medicines; it's not necessarily about horse welfare either. I'll tell you what it's about—it's about breeding.'' That to me is one of the most bizarre arguments advanced, although I admit that one or two of my constituents have tried to persuade me of it. They say that at the top end of the competition world, many Olympic gold medals are won by German

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horses, and Germany has horse passports: so that proves that if we in Britain have horse passports, we will win loads of gold medals too.

I would say to those people who are concerned about the very top end of the competition horse world that if they want to have horse passports in their particular category, by all means, have them—but that would be entirely voluntary on their part. All they would need to do is tell people who turn up for one, two or three-day events that they cannot take part unless they have a passport—and that having a passport will improve breeding, as well. However, I cannot see why a sanctuary for 100 broken-down old donkeys, which my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) mentioned a moment ago, should have to spend £2,000 to £3,000 to improve horses worth £25,000, £30,000 or £40,000 that might be taking part in an Olympic equestrian event. There is no linkage, as far as I can see, between passports and better breeding of competition horses, so that argument seems wholly unjustified.

Horse passports should be voluntary, as they have been in the racing world and in many horse and pony breeding societies for years. They are things that particular groups of people should have voluntarily, and that is why the incoming Conservative Government are committed to renegotiating the entire directive with the EU and to removing the compulsory nature of horse passports. We will do away with the necessity for every horse owner in Britain to have one.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on calling an Adjournment debate on the matter some time ago. I remember the Minister saying on that occasion that he was confident that large parts of the horse world supported him in bringing in compulsory horse passports. To some extent, that is true. Certainly some organisations, including the British Horse Society and the British Equestrian Federation, are broadly in favour of introducing them, although their thinking seems to be more about welfare and breeding than about veterinary medicines. I suspect that it may be well worth making the points to them that I made a moment ago. I have the highest possible regard for BHS, the BEF and the British Horse Industry Confederation, for which I used to be a consultant. They do their best for the horses of Great Britain. Far be it from me to suggest one reason that they are particularly keen on passports is because under the scheme set up by the Minister, they are the organisations to administer them. Therefore, if a horse owner has to pay £30 to buy a horse passport, the money will go to the BHS, the BEF and those other organisations. They have a very real financial reason to support the Minister.

However, if the right hon. Gentleman wants to consider real people in the horse world, I direct his attention to the Association of British Riding Schools, of which I have the honour to be president. The ABRS represents a very large number of ordinary people who ride horses in ordinary riding schools up and down the nation. We are talking about low-grade horses and real people who are 100 per cent. opposed to the

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introduction of compulsory horse passports. Ordinary riding schools are having difficulties anyway—about 250 close down in Britain every year. The riding school where my son is learning to ride has about 100 horses, including many ponies and donkeys. They are fairly low-grade type of horses, not racehorses, and although there are one or two nicer horses, they are, by and large, fairly average riding school-type horses. The school is currently trying to do a special deal with the ABRS and, would you believe it, the Donkey Breed Society. Unless it can do such a deal, it might have to take out passports with the BHS, which is charging £22 per horse for members—incidentally, it costs £42 per man to join the BHS—and £27 per horse for non-members.

It has been suggested that the BHS will raise £25,000 per week—the figures have not been verified—from administering the Minister's nasty little scheme. That £25,000 per week is coming out of the pockets of the 1 million ordinary people who go to ordinary riding schools throughout the nation. We are not convinced that there is an upside to the scheme, but there is a considerable downside.

Mrs. Gillan: Does my hon. Friend agree that it will be almost impossible to police the multiplicity of passport-issuing organisations? It will also be difficult to shop around to get the best price. Too many organisations are involved and the system has been set up unscrupulously. There should be a fixed price for the horse passport.

Mr. Gray: More than 100 organisations have been approved, although the ABRS, which sought approval, was not allowed to register.

Mrs. Gillan: Why not?

Mr. Gray: Because it is opposed to the scheme. The scheme will be impossible to police. There is already chaos in the horse world because of the shambolic way in which the Government have attempted to introduce the regulations. People do not know what is happening and when they must obtain the documents. Matters have been made worse by the failure to produce a worthwhile statutory instrument.

The cost is a huge downside. It will cost the equine industry some £20 million to set up the scheme and £1 million a year to run it. Can the Minister tell us why cattle passports are free of charge while horse passports are not? My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham is right: there should be a national set price for horse passports. If the Government want them and the Minister is convinced that the European lawyers have given him the correct legal justification for their introduction, the Government should introduce and administer the passports and issue them free of charge to all horse owners. If he is convinced that they are necessary, he should not need to make them compulsory.

The regulation and bureaucracy worry me—where will they lead? The Government are discussing listing every horse, donkey and mule in Britain on a central Government database. What new regulations will they introduce to bear down on ordinary horse owners

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across the nation? We have seen their approach to veterinary medicines—they are discussing not allowing products such as wormers to be sold by agricultural merchants; wormers will be available only by veterinary prescription. That will cost a lot of money, so there is an animal welfare downside in that, too. If we have the regulation, bossiness and computers that the Minister is kindly proposing, bureaucracy and interference will get worse.

Leaving aside the pros and cons of the thinking behind the regulations, I have a number of important questions for the Minister about how they will be implemented. Regulation 7 contains derogations for both the New Forest and Dartmoor: the authorities in those areas can register ponies, and I welcome that sensible exception. However, the derogation does not apply to Bodmin moor, where some 600 ponies roam wild. It is impossible to differentiate between those ponies and no one knows who owns them. Unlike Dartmoor and the New Forest, there is no regulatory authority for Bodmin moor. The ponies are truly wild and largely unregulated.

The definition of ''horse'' at the beginning of the regulations is ''a domesticated animal'', or words to that general effect. Indeed, regulation 2(1) states that

    '''horse' means a domestic animal''.

The Protection of Animals Act 1934 defines a domestic animal as

    ''an animal which is tame or which has been or is being sufficiently tamed to serve some purpose for the use of man''.

Plainly, the ponies of Bodmin moor—there may well be similar groups in other parts of England—have not been tamed: they are entirely wild. There is nothing tame about them and they are not being used by man; they are wild animals. Will the Minister tell us whether the Bodmin moor ponies and other wild animals of that sort fall within the terms of the regulations? I suspect that he does not know. He might like to take advice on the matter, and perhaps he could let me know the answer in a letter.

We have touched briefly on the other point that worries me: enforcement. As always, it is the responsible horse owners who will have to take out a licence. We experienced the same situation with dog licences in the past: responsible dog owners had one, but the rogues did not, and there were plenty of wild and loose dogs around. The situation will be even more difficult in the horse world. I do not know whether the Minister has ever been to the Appleby horse fair or the horse markets in Ireland, or ever seen the gypsies spitting on their palms and shaking hands to sell a horse. That is the way selling is done in the horse world; it is not the same as buying or selling a house or a car. Horses often change hands in informal ways. By what means does the Minister intend to regulate and enforce what seems to us to be a bureaucratic and unnecessary passport?

Apart from anything else, identification, especially of feral horses, will be well nigh impossible, largely because many of them look exactly like each other. I shall quote from the Lands End Equestrian Centre in

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Twyford, Reading—why it should be called that when it is in Reading I do not know, but it is. Mr. Lucken, who runs the centre, tells me:

    ''I own 60 grey/white Shetland ponies which I use for pantomimes. I have pedigree and unregistered and they all run together and with these passports I would not be able to tell which pony was which as finding whorls on a grey/white pony especially in the winter months is near impossible. These horses/ponies are usually born black and gradually over a period of years turn grey/white. Does this mean that each horse/pony would need another passport as it matures?''

He continues:

    ''I also run a riding stable and have about 15 horses/ponies and some old ponies which are retired and have been kept as they have served us well. Having all this extra cost added to this would finish the business. We do not sell or export ponies.''

I would say that Mr. Lucken is typical of a great many people. He has 60 Shetland ponies, and the regulations will put him out of business. He does not sell his ponies for eating, so it is not necessary for the regulations to apply to him. I would like the Minister to explain how he intends to get Mr. Lucken and people like him to identify such animals correctly under the terms of the regulations. As someone rightly said before the sitting began today, it is going to be damned difficult to get these animals into the photo booth to find out precisely what they look like.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) is here. I do not know whether he intends to catch your eye later on, Mr. Olner, but he may.

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Prepared 11 December 2003