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House of Commons

Friday 14 March 2008

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (motions to sit in private):—

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 27.
Division No. 123]
[9.33 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Nick Hurd and
Mr. John Baron

Bottomley, Peter
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Farron, Tim
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Goodman, Helen
Greening, Justine
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Hanson, rh Mr. David
Harper, Mr. Mark
Heath, Mr. David
Hillier, Meg
Hoey, Kate
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
McCabe, Steve
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
Pearson, Ian
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Shaw, Jonathan
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa
Wiggin, Bill
Williams, Mr. Roger
Tellers for the Noes:

John Robertson and
Liz Blackman
Question accordingly negatived.

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided .

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Orders of the Day

Animals Act 1971 (Amendment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.49 am

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to bring clarity to an area of law that has been beset with controversy and confusion in recent years, leading to enormous negative practical consequences for interested parties. I am talking about the legal framework for the application of civil liability in respect of damage done by animals, and in particular the application of strict liability in cases where non-dangerous animals have caused injury or damage. I am talking about animals such as horses, ponies and cows, rather than tigers or snakes.

The relevant legislation is section 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971. My short Bill aims to restore the careful balance that the Act tried to achieve between the rights of members of the public and the rights of keepers of animals regarding the circumstances in which keepers are liable for damage caused by animals, which has been upset in recent years following the 2003 House of Lords ruling in the case of Mirvahedy v. Henley.

In attempting to restore that balance, my Bill will clarify the limits on how and when strict liability can be applied. As I will argue, that clarification will be entirely in keeping with the original intentions between the 1971 Act and will be consistent with the underlying principles of that legislation.

I spent last Friday morning at a disabled riding centre in my constituency. I had a fabulous time watching a large group of young people with various physical and learning disabilities drawn from a huge cross-section of society enjoying a riding lesson. I spoke to the parents and carers of those young people who told me—every single one of them—that the weekly riding session was the highlight of the young people’s week. They told me about the importance of the activity, not only because of the pure fun and enjoyment offered by the experience but because it helped the young people to develop motor skills and better co-ordination and to gain confidence.

I then spent some time talking to the owner of the riding centre, Mrs. Janet Gibson. She is not a lawyer and would not claim to understand all the legal arguments about the application of strict liability, but she does understand her business: how to run a large and extremely well-organised riding centre that provides not only lessons for hundreds of able-bodied and disabled riders each week but, through a link to the local further education college, tuition to riding instructors. She described to me the burdens and challenges facing riding centres such as hers. Specifically, she told me about the soaring insurance costs that she has faced in recent years, which threaten the financial viability of her centre. She told me that she saw her insurance costs leap by about 25 per cent. in one year alone. That year was 2004-05, which is significant as we are thinking about the effects of the 2003 House of Lords judgment. Her insurance costs have risen by more than 65 per cent. since then.

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She explained how insurance has been getting more expensive and a lot more difficult to obtain for riding centres and livery yards. She told me about six or seven other riding centres in the region that she knew had been forced to close as a consequence of the increasing cost burden affecting the equine sector.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, and I hope that it will be enacted. Does he agree that the problem does not only affect rural areas? Many urban city farms are also affected by increasing litigation and the increasing cost of insurance. The one in Vauxhall, five or 10 minutes from this House, is affected by that problem, and those who run it would also like the Bill to be supported.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have been delighted with the response to the Bill both from organisations with an obvious rural interest and from those that take an interest in the more urban opportunities for making riding available to young people and adults.

Awareness of the problem has been growing among Members from all parts of the UK and both sides of the House over the past few years, and many have illustrative cases in their constituencies. There is widespread acknowledgement that there is a problem stemming from the lack of clarity about the application of strict liability, and growing consensus that it needs to be addressed.

I am not the first Member to seek to tackle the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who is one of the sponsors of my Bill, sought to bring in a Bill on the issue under the ten-minute rule. I tried that route, too, last year. Furthermore, a succession of early-day motions over the last three years have demonstrated substantial cross-party concern and support for a policy remedy. Early-day motion 992, for example, in the 2005-06 Session, attracted the support of 149 Members.

I must also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who is another sponsor of the Bill. He has taken an active interest in the issue for a long time, and in his former capacity as Minister for the horse he organised a consultation on the question that we are considering today. That consultation overwhelmingly found in favour of the proposed policy solution embodied in the Bill.

I am grateful to all the sponsors of the Bill and the many other Members from both sides of the House who have not just expressed general support but have read the Bill and believe that it strikes an appropriate balance and will make a good contribution to fixing the problem. I should also pay tribute to those interested organisations that have raised the issue. In particular, I want to thank the Country Land and Business Association for first bringing the issue to my attention and highlighting the particular constituency case. The association has campaigned ceaselessly for a change in the law. I have also received very persuasive representations from, among others, the British Horse Society, the Countryside Alliance and the National Farmers Union.

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I have also discussed the Bill with lawyers who have represented injury victims and animal owners, with representatives of the insurance industry, and with organisations such as the Ramblers Association. They have all given it their backing. I have also discussed the matter with the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, and its members have raised their concerns with me.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I, too, think that this is an excellent Bill. Do the Government agree?

Mr. Crabb: Absolutely. I understand that the Government are very supportive of the Bill. I have been delighted not only with the personal support that the Minister has given me, but with the support of his team in the Department. We have had meetings almost weekly for three or four months now—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): Not me and him.

Mr. Crabb: That would have been nice, though.

We have had meetings with stakeholder organisations to clarify the question at hand and to come up with a policy remedy that we can all unite around and that we believe will do what it says on the packet and fix the problem, of which there is growing awareness.

The central purpose of the Bill is to clarify section 2(2) of the 1971 Act, and in so doing ensure that the Act remains true to its original intentions. By achieving far greater clarity over how strict liability should be applied to keepers of non-dangerous animals, my Bill will have substantial benefits for the rural economy and more generally for all those who own animals. It will impact most noticeably on the equine sector, which not only forms a vital part of the social fabric of our countryside but makes a significant contribution to the national economy. According to the British Equestrian Trade Association’s national survey in 2006, 4.3 million people from all walks of life rode a horse on at least one occasion. More than £730 million is spent on riding lessons each year and overall the industry is estimated to be worth £4 billion for our economy.

Those are not bald statistics: behind them lie real stories of families, young people and adults from all walks of life who enjoy the benefits of riding and the countryside. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that in 2005 the equine industry employed up to 250,000 people, with another 11 million holding some interest in the horse industry and 5 million taking an active interest. This vital sector is under enormous pressure, not least because of the huge increases in insurance costs that we have seen over the past few years.

There are probably many more promising ways of making a fortune than setting up a riding school or livery yard. In most cases, the motivation is not financial but a passion for horses and a desire to share that passion with others. The fact that so many highly qualified people are prepared to run equestrian businesses on wafer-thin margins is a testament to their commitment to the sport. The House should remember that we look to today’s riding schools to bring on tomorrow’s Olympic medallists.

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It follows that a business that operates on such narrow margins is highly susceptible to relatively modest increases in costs. The substantial year-on-year increases in insurance premiums that we have seen will simply be more than many businesses can withstand. Although the data that we have on riding school closures cannot accurately highlight one factor rather than another as the primary cause of failure, the British Horse Society cites the insupportable burden of ever-increasing insurance costs as the primary cause of deep anxiety among proprietors.

Insurers themselves have told me:

The Bill will help to limit the soaring insurance costs faced by the equine sector.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has been talking in support of his Bill for 10 minutes, and he has concentrated on horses. However, the Bill would of course affect all animals, other than wild animals. Most injuries are caused by dogs, not horses. How would the Bill impact on a child savaged by a big dog?

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that other legislation covers dangerous dogs, and I understand that the Bill would not affect the application of that legislation.

The Bill would help to limit the soaring insurance costs faced by the equine sector. Clarifying the law should provide greater certainty about when strict liability will apply, thus allowing insurers to reassess the risk involved in insuring animal owners. The amendment to the 1971 Act would also help to enable the swifter resolution of claims. I hope that those benefits would be reflected in revised insurance premiums.

What was the problem with the 2003 Mirvahedy judgment and why has it created or compounded problems for animal owners? The intention behind section 2(2) of the 1971 Act was to ensure that the keeper of a potentially dangerous animal should bear appropriate responsibility for damage caused by that animal and should take particular precautions when there was a real and identifiable risk of damage occurring. To that end, it imposed strict liability on the keeper when the animal in question was known to present such a risk, either permanently because of its temperament, or temporarily because of particular circumstances applying at the time. The intention of the Act was not—I think that this view is shared on both sides of the House; it is shared by the Minister and his Department—to impose strict liability in respect of all damage by all animals.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I entirely support the Bill and hope that it makes progress. Is not the problem with the state of the existing law that it considers animals to be reasonable creatures that act in a reasonable way? Anyone who has ever owned an animal or ridden a horse knows that they occasionally do not act in a reasonable way. Is not the importance of the Bill that it would retain strict liability for circumstances in which someone ought to
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know that an animal is dangerous and not remove the tort of negligence when proper precautions had not been taken?

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right and he makes an important intervention. Nothing in the Bill would undermine an injured party’s right to seek the normal avenues of common law and negligence-based claims.

The Mirvahedy judgment extended the scope of section 2(2) of the 1971 Act to increase liability for keepers of non-dangerous animals that can display dangerous behaviour in particular circumstances or at particular times. A great many people who have looked closely and carefully at this matter, including a minority of the judges who considered the Mirvahedy case, believe that the imposition of strict liability in cases in which a normal animal is behaving in a way that is not normal for an animal of that species, yet normal for that species in particular circumstances—for example, if a horse bolts after being sufficiently alarmed—goes further than the original intention of Parliament when it passed the 1971 Act. Far from clarifying what even the majority of the judges considering Mirvahedy agreed was an ambiguous piece of legislation, the judgment has extended the possible application of strict liability to a wider range of situations. That has compounded the problem of interpreting and applying the legislation. It has also created greater uncertainty and confusion in the minds of animal owners and a greater risk for insurance, which is reflected in increased insurance premiums.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman makes a great deal of the impact on insurance. Will he comment on a point made on page 19 of the Library brief that refers to an article by two barristers questioning why the predicted explosion in strict liability compensation cases has not happened as many feared that it would? There has not been an explosion in strict liability cases, so how does he explain the rise in insurance premiums, which cannot be linked to more cases and compensation claims?

Mr. Crabb: We have discussed the issue in detail with not only stakeholder organisations representing the interests of animals, but lawyers who have represented victims. The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but this is true. We have discussed the matter in detail with lawyers representing the insurance industry. They have given a written explanation—I will happily send it to him—of the way in which the 2003 Mirvahedy judgment has “muddied the waters” and led to greater confusion and uncertainty over claims in the area.

Mr. Heath: The last intervention was based on a misconception. The premium is based on contingency, not on the actual number of cases presented. The argument that the hon. Gentleman is making is thus entirely correct.

Mr. Crabb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention.

The opaque language of section 2(2) of the 1971 Act has been widely criticised. Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, in his 2003 judgment, stated:

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It might be helpful if I explain the legal background in a little more detail. Section 2(2) of the 1971 Act focuses on the damage caused by non-dangerous animals, but does so in an unfortunately complex way. It places strict liability on the keepers of non-dangerous animals that cause harm, assuming that three requirements are satisfied. The first requirement is:

The second requirement, which is crucial to this discussion, is:

The third requirement is:

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