Horse Passports (England) Regulations 2003

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The Chairman: If there is time.

Mr. Gray: This is an important matter. We are horrified to see what the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has said about how badly drafted the regulations are. I would like the Minister to explain how he intends to put them right.

It is important that we raise one further matter in the Committee this morning. There is a direct and immediate linkage between the passports and the proposal that the 30-year old ban on the export of live horses to continental Europe should now end. Currently, only high-value horses—horses that are worth more than £5,000 each—may be exported live, mainly for competing, racing or breeding purposes. For many years, no other live horses have been exported from the United Kingdom to the continent of Europe, and most of us horse lovers have welcomed that. In the live horse trade on the continent, about 100,000 horses a year, mainly from Lithuania, Poland and other places, are taken to Italy, largely for salami production. I believe that that is a revolting trade, and we should be doing everything we can to stop it on the continent. We should certainly not be contributing to it.

Coincidental—although I wonder about that—with the regulations producing horse passports to make it easier to take horses to the abattoir, we receive a letter from the Minister announcing that he intends to apply fully the new EU export health rules and the improved standards to the welfare of horses during transport. The net upshot is that he will remove the value

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restriction on the live export of horses. We shall introduce passports for the better identification of horses, and those passports will make it easier for horses to be killed for human consumption. In a coincidental caving-in to the European Union, the Minister is making possible the ending of the 30-year prevention of the export of live horses. The net upshot must be a significant increase in the number of live horses exported from this country to the European Union to be slaughtered for eating.

The Minister calls himself ''the Minister for the horse'', but if he allows those two things to happen simultaneously, he will be the Minister for the slaughter of horses. I call on him to withdraw this defective, unnecessary, bureaucratic, interventionist and bossy statutory instrument and to continue the ban on the live export of horses to the continent. If he does not do so, he will be making a personal contribution to a revolting trade.

10.25 am

Alun Michael: I welcome the opportunity to put the horse passports requirement into the wider context of our work to support the horse industry and rural economies that benefit from horses. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) started his opening speech by being almost consensual and quite positive about the regulations, and I welcomed his first few sentences. However, he recovered quickly and expressed objections for the rest of his contribution.

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that I meet equestrian organisations regularly; my officials and I speak to them and listen to what they have to say. That includes organisations such as the British Horse Society, the British Horse Industry Confederation and the British Equine Federation. Yesterday I met representatives of the major horse welfare organisations to discuss a wide range of issues, including the passport legislation. They made it clear that they strongly support the legislation. I shall outline the reasons for that in a few moments, but I have to say that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that he will have to take his horse into a photo booth to obtain a passport demonstrates his lack of understanding of the requirements.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend tell the Committee whether at his meetings with the various animal welfare organisations concerns were voiced about the possibility of horse passports opening the floodgates to the export of horses for meat? Can he give us some idea of what concerns there are, and what measures he is putting in place to prevent that from happening? Can he give us a reassurance about the ban not being lifted?

Alun Michael: Yes. In the first instance, the horse welfare and other animal welfare organisations have concentrated on the practicalities of introducing the passports, because the system is quite complex. However we deal with it, there will be complications. There are advantages and disadvantages to the three options outlined by the hon. Member for North

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Wiltshire, the main disadvantage being that two of those options simply do not meet the requirements, but I shall return to that later.

Mr. Cameron: Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael: If the hon. Gentleman lets me deal with one intervention before he seeks to intervene, of course I shall then be pleased to give way.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire raised the issue of the minimum values legislation, which is currently a proxy for dealing with horse welfare issues in the context of exports. There are well known problems with the legality of that arrangement—horse organisations have acknowledged that. A lead has been taken from this country and this Government in the improvement of animal—including horse—welfare requirements across Europe. That is benefiting not only horses in this country and those that travel between countries, but horses across Europe, including in the accession states.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) that we have no intention of weakening this country's controls on the export of horses. We must ensure that our approach is soundly based on horse welfare legislation, rather than on the proxy of values, and we intend to do that. I am consulting on that matter: I have discussed it with horse welfare organisations and we have had some positive responses, and I have arranged a seminar at which the welfare organisations and the campaigning organisations concerned will discuss with my officials our search for a new regulatory approach. However, until we have found the best way of proceeding, we will not remove existing legislation.

Ms Walley: Further to those reassurances, will my right hon. Friend tell me whether the RSPCA will be involved in the meetings that he plans to hold? I assume that it has provided all Committee members with its five points of concern relating to the current statutory instrument. Will the Minister discuss with RSCPA a way of resolving some of the issues that it has raised, which include the number of bodies issuing passports. Will he give an assurance that he will meet RSPCA representatives to see how best to address the organisation's concerns?

Alun Michael: Yes, I assure my hon. Friend that I have discussed the matter directly with the RSPCA and that it will be included in the seminar, as will the International League for the Protection of Horses and a number of other organisations to which I have spoken directly. I discussed the issues with a group of horse welfare organisations in a meeting only yesterday.

Mrs. Gillan: To follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, I would like a specific assurance, because the RSPCA raises two particular points that are worth asking the Minister about now. First, the RSPCA is worried that horses may be denied necessary treatment if the owner is rearing them for meat. Although that will apply only in a small number of cases, it is still a major animal

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welfare issue. The second issue relates to vets using certain drugs without first entering details in the passport. The new regulations mean that ponies on Bodmin moor or Dartmoor that need emergency treatment may not even be able to be dartgunned in order to be caught. That is a worrying in terms of horse welfare. Will the Minister assure me that he has addressed both points with the RSPCA and tell me how he has dealt with them? If he cannot tell me now, I would like him to write to members of the Committee telling us how he has addressed those pertinent points.

Alun Michael: The hon. Lady raises a couple of specific issues that we have been discussing with horse welfare organisations, including the RSPCA. The problem of the prevention of the use of particular drugs relates to the interface between the horse passport regulations and veterinary regulations, which are made under different legislation. I have seen the briefing that the RSPCA provided to members of the Committee, so I will refer to that. We have found a way of dealing with the matter and I assure the hon. Lady and the RSPCA that we will introduce an amendment that will cover the point. It is a serious point and we have found it difficult to find a way around it. The RSPCA was quite right to brief the Committee as it has done, but I am pleased to say that we bottomed out the issue this morning, before the Committee sat. I will deal with the issue, and will return to it later in my remarks.

Mr. Cameron: Will the Minister clarify whether option 2—having passports only for horses that will enter the food chain—meets the requirements of the directive? Viscount Astor asked Lord Whitty in another place why option 2 had been produced by the Government and costed in a regulatory impact assessment. Lord Whitty replied:

    ''My Lords, it is one of the options put forward in order to meet the criteria of the directive''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 June 2003; Vol. 648, c. 1129.]

Was Lord Whitty wrong?

Alun Michael: No, Lord Whitty was right in that option 2 was introduced in an attempt to meet the criteria of the European legislation, but, having gone through the process of trying to design such a measure, the advice was that it would not enable us to meet the legal requirements, which is why it was not proposed. We consulted widely, and I had a discussion with officials, on the basis of the legal advice, about whether we should set out all three options that we considered, or go straight to the conclusions that we eventually arrived at. We decided to set out openly everything that we had considered and give everybody the opportunity to make suggestions on possible changes. At the end of the consultation, however, I was left with the same conclusion that I have made clear to the House on several occasions, which is that the approach that we have adopted—without any gold-plating and without adding any bells and whistles—is necessary in order to meet the legal requirements.

In my introductory remarks I have responded to some of the concerns raised by members of the Committee. I had intended in my introduction to

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express my appreciation to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments for its time and helpful comments on the regulations. It has rightly drawn to our attention several points at which the regulations are defective. It may assist the debate if I confirm that we are in the process of introducing replacement regulations to take account of the technical and legal drafting points that were raised. I considered withdrawing the regulations and reintroducing them in corrected form, but the points are technical details and they do not change the requirements or the way in which individual owners or horse passport organisations have to meet those requirements.

More than anything else, the horse industry has asked me for certainty and information about what the regulations say and do. We have therefore decided to proceed with the regulations so that the industry has that certainty, and then return to correct the drafting details. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments asked us to do that.

 
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