Farriers’ Qualifications (European Recognition) Regulations 2008

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Barry Gardiner: I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I asked of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. He knows that until recently, Poland had the highest number of working horses in Europe. However, I would challenge him to provide any evidence of an increase in Poland, or any other such countries, in accidents involving people as a result of badly-shod horses.
Mr. Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point again. I am sure that there is excellent farrier practice in parts of Europe. If I were a Minister, I would write to him on that matter.
Mr. Williams: Perhaps the hon. Members will write to each other and bring further illumination on the issue.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raises the important point that it is the farriers who work in this country at the moment who will have to pay for the temporary registration process that will become part of the way in which farriers can come and work in this country.
I did not declare an interest at the beginning of my short contribution, Mr. Illsley, on the basis that it is a long time since I have jumped on a horse—something for which I imagine that many horses are very grateful. I certainly used to ride a lot when I was younger, and we had the services of really good blacksmiths, as we used to call them—the term farrier did not exist in my part of the world at that time. Blacksmiths were trained through experience and practice, but we have moved on from that and people who use the services of farriers in this country should have the right to expect the highest degree of professionalism. By bringing farriers in from Europe without the same degree of qualifications, the regulations do not go any way to ensuring that that high level of expertise will be retained.
9.23 am
Mr. Gray: Thank you Mr. Illsley, it is a pleasure to serve under you on this Committee. I do not intend to delay the Committee unduly, not least because some of us will be looking forward to DEFRA questions and the opportunity to cross-examine the Minister on a variety of issues. I will try to keep my remarks brief.
This statutory instrument is more important than many that might be heard and discussed in the room. There are roughly 1.5 million horses in the UK, nearly all of them shod. More importantly, there are something like 4.5 million people who ride horses, many of which are hired from riding schools. If those horses are not shod properly, there will be huge problems. I speak as the president of the Association of British Riding Schools, which has a particular interest in this matter.
As a declaration of interest, we keep six horses at home. If anything, it is a negative pecuniary interest, because the fees that we pay to farriers are astronomic, but we are delighted to be paying them because we know that they are paid to people who are fully qualified and who will look after our horses in the way that we want. One or two of those horses—not my own—are very valuable animals and it is important to ensure that the guy who comes round to shoe them knows precisely what he is doing, not only with regard to banging the bit of metal on their feet, but the whole way in which the horse’s leg and foot operates. That is what the farrier does for us. If the horse goes lame one gets the farrier, not the vet. The farrier immediately looks at the hock and the way the shoe is put on and prescribes a remedial shoe. It is a very complicated and highly difficult operation. Those of us who have horses do not mind paying someone we know to be hugely well qualified to do that.
Before I go on to the meat of this topic which my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire covered so well, I have concerns about the way in which we have arrived here. First, these regulations have been in force and used since last October or November. It is very peculiar that regulations occur and things happen in the United Kingdom long before they are considered in this place. Surely this is important enough for it to be considered here first and then to be implemented, not the other way round. That seems a legislative oddity to which the Minister might like to respond.
I am also concerned about the way in which consultation was done on this statutory instrument. As the explanatory notes remind us:
“As the UK government is required to implement the Directive, the consultation on these Regulations did not consult on the principles underlying the Directive or those provisions whose transposition into domestic law leaves no room for discretion at Member State level.”
It is odd that we are in a Committee room in the mother of Parliaments discussing a matter when we have been told by the Government that the transposition of these provisions into domestic law leaves no room for discretion at member state level. Whatever degree of Eurosceptic we might be, it seems peculiar that we have been told by the European Union that there is no room for discretion at member state level, particularly as I am not certain that that is right.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, we understand that the decision was made by DEFRA officials — [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head. He will have an opportunity to reply to that later. We will be delighted if he is able to say that this happened despite his best efforts. Our understanding is that it was a decision of DEFRA officials that the health and safety and animal welfare aspects of these provisions should be ignored and that farriers should be treated the same way as metal workers, as I understand they have been classified. In that context, I want to make two or three points with regard to the process by which this statutory instrument arrives here today.
Paragraph 8 of the explanatory notes states:
“An Impact Assessment has not been prepared for this instrument as no significant impact on public, private or voluntary sectors is foreseen.”
As many as 4.5 million riders and 2,500 farriers in the United Kingdom today will disagree fundamentally with that conclusion. I believe that there will be significant impact on public, private and voluntary sectors as a result of this SI. That comes down to several things, but health and safety and animal welfare are central.
In the context of animal welfare, I was concerned by a written answer that my noble friend Baroness Byford extracted from the Government on the subject of these regulations. She asked what consideration had been given to animal welfare in the implementation of these regulations. The answer stated:
“No formal assessment of the impact of these regulations on animal welfare has been carried out.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 May 2008; Vol. 701, c.WA51.]
So the Government are bringing this in without even considering whether it has an implication for animal welfare, yet I believe that it has a very significant implication.
With that as background, I shall touch on some of the substantive matters that my hon. Friend has already touched on. The first is that in this country we can be justifiably proud of the extraordinarily high standards of farriery that we enjoy, which probably goes back centuries. We have such expertise and skill because our attitude to the horse is different from the European one. They eat them, for example, and we do not. They move them live overseas. We, thankfully, managed to prevent that happening in a debate two or three years ago, against this Government’s best intentions. They were going to allow the live export of horses to the continent for eating, but we got that stopped.
We have 1.5 million horses, all of them are shod, all of them are being ridden in the country. We have the highest standards of competition horses. Many of the European countries do too, but much less widely. The hon. Member for Brent, North raised the point about there being a lot of horses in Poland. As I pointed out earlier, of course there are many horses in Poland; most of them owned by small farmers, most of them unshod and most of them for pulling carts. They are not actually competition, riding, hunting or hacking horses of the kind that we have and there are a very small number of them. Our 1.5 million horses come to more than all of the other main European countries put together.
Barry Gardiner: Would the hon. Gentleman not accept that in many of those countries, such as Poland, where the horse was a working animal and where indeed they were shod, the services of a farrier were required? The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has just pointed out that farriers do not deal with shoeing horses alone, but actually with the whole health of the horse’s hoof and leg. Would he not accept also that in those countries, because of the poverty that many of those countries came from, a working horse was a very important piece of machinery and it was imperative that it was kept in impeccable working order, and that therefore the necessary standard of farriery was accordingly high?
Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman makes an odd point. Of course horses are important, particularly in peasant societies around the world today, but farriers do not go near them. Farmers trim their own horses’ feet—they do not wear shoes; the feet are trimmed. Often in those societies, particularly in Asia Minor, horses are expendable animals that last for a short time and when they go lame they are shot. The notion that somehow they have the same high standards of animal welfare as we enjoy in this country is simply nonsensical. We shall be going to an event sponsored by the International League for the Protection of Horses later this morning, and its members will tell the hon. Gentleman if he asks them that the standards of animal welfare across much of the continent of Europe, within the European Union, is significantly lower than they are here. We are saying that the standards of farriery in the UK are historically extraordinarily high and it is terribly important that we should continue that tradition. The net effect of this statutory instrument may be, but will not necessarily be, that those standards are reduced.
In his response, the Minister may well do the same as his noble Friend Lord Rooker and say two things. Lord Rooker’s main defence in the other place was first, that there are the 400 grandfather rights people, to which my hon. Friend referred, although he was unable to answer the question that was put to him by Lord Addington. That question was how old are these people and how old are the grandfather rights that are on them? The answer that I have seen in an internal DEFRA document on this subject is that their average age is 60 to 61. Those are all people who were farriers before the Farriers (Registration) Act 1975 came in and they were allowed to continue as farriers thereafter, and quite right too. However, they have been farriers for some 30 or 40 years and quite frankly, some of these old boys, who may well not be qualified but who were farriers before 1975, strike me as being just the people whom I would like to come and look after my horses, so we are not talking about them—let us forget them.
The Minister may well also say that we have had one or two people only coming in under the regulations so far, and they have been in operation since last October. I think that one is temporary and one permanent; he will no doubt correct me if I am wrong. He may say that that number is insignificant; that it does not matter terribly and that we have 2,500 properly qualified British farriers, with only two coming in from Europe, who will probably go away again. He can no doubt demonstrate that they are working in the best racing yards, that they are terribly well qualified and all that. That is not the point. The point here is the principle that under the regulations it is at least possible, although it may not happen, for people who are totally unqualified, who have been operating in parts of the European Union—bear it in mind that Romania, the Czech Republic and all sorts of places will be brought into the European Union—to come here and operate as a temporary farrier for a year, although they may have been in business for only two years. It seems extraordinary that some entirely unqualified person can come here with a piece of paper, such as his tax returns, to show that he has been in business for two years and the Government will say, “Okay, fine, off you go. We’ve 1.5 million horses here, you can go and do what you like with them.” The public will not know whether they are properly qualified, but will see that they have been given the opportunity by the Government to practise as farriers and they will rely on that.
Mr. Williams: A number of farriers have spoken to me about the cost of the insurance needed for them to carry on in their profession. Does the hon. Gentleman think there is any requirement for somebody coming from Europe to have insurance to carry on their professional training? That is important to the public.
Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. Of course, it is important. There is a degree of caveat emptor in relation to this. If some fellow comes down my drive and says, “I want to do your horses shoes,” of course, I will say, “Let’s see who you are.” Presumably, the insurance premiums of all farriers will go up. If a number of these people come in and standards go down, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that insurance premiums for all horses would have to go up to compensate for the reduction in standards.
It seems that the risk of the SI is that the extremely high calibre of farrier that we have enjoyed in this country for many years might be diluted. I am not saying that it will be—there is nothing definite about it—but it might be the case. Surely, if this place has any purpose, it is to consider measures that are introduced—regulations and Acts—spot the problems with them and consider whether they might make people’s way of life worse in the United Kingdom. The points about the health and safety of the rider and animal welfare, which are both matters that have not so far been considered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in relation to these SIs, indicate that the standards might get worse, as a result of which the quality of riding, horses and farriers in this country might be reduced. The Government should go back to the European Commission, say that they believe that there is a health and safety and animal welfare problem, and seek a derogation from the regulations.
9.37 am
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I rise to my feet as someone who has no knowledge whatsoever about horses and little about farriering, but as someone who wishes to counteract what strikes me as being the somewhat xenophobic argument emanating from those on the Opposition Benches—most markedly towards Poland. [Hon. Members: “ No.”] I did not interrupt Opposition Members when they made their arguments so I would be grateful if they did not attempt to interrupt me.
Poland has been mentioned on more than one occasion and underlying the arguments emanating from those on the Opposition Benches is the view that farriering in this country—a central part of the horse industry, however one wishes to define it—has been going on for centuries and therefore we are primary experts in the field. I make no argument against that, but simply wish to point out to those on the Opposition Benches that farriering as a profession and as something that became increasingly expert was based, as so many professions are, on war. Farriering came into its primacy because centuries ago, wars were mainly conducted by cavalry. I am sure that no one in the Committee would discount the historic records that show that Poland and Hungary had expert cavalry forces. I therefore find it impossible to believe that farriering as a profession was not given the same high regard in those countries as in this country—although admittedly at that time, war allowed for a rather limited expression of farriering abilities.
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