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14 Mar 2008 : Column 526

Hon. Members have discussed the Animals Act 1971 and its intent. We are now in 2008—quite a long way down the road from 1971. I look favourably on the Bill because the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire is trying to tackle what has happened in the meantime. However, intent and need are not the same and I wonder about the treatment of the ordinary person under the Bill. The Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill caused all sorts of problems. It was said that the dogs were always under control, that the riders knew what they were doing and that the measure was unnecessary because we simply had to make sure that the existing rules were used. Similar comments have been made about the Bill that we are debating. Yet we know that a pack of animals does not act in the same way as an individual animal; animals act differently in a group. Some animals hunt in packs and their behaviour in the pack is different from that when they are individual pets in somebody’s sight.

We discussed the problem of the plastic bag and a horse rearing. If we substitute a child—or an adult—for the plastic bag, and the person is crippled by the horse, as in the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) mentioned, what sort of liability do they have? Their lives might be drastically changed because of an accident with an animal. How do they ensure that they are looked after? I have difficulty with that. It is easy for people to say that the animals were simply doing what they do, and that the horse reared because the child or adult frightened or shocked it. However, the person—I would call him or her the victim—has to live with whatever disability they end up with.

Mr. Dismore: Let us suppose that a family goes out for a walk to the countryside on a Sunday afternoon. They are walking along a country lane that is a bridlepath, when a horse comes the other way and injures a child, who could be crippled. Under the Bill, the child may end up with no compensation, and the family would be left looking after that child for the rest of its life with no financial support from any insurance company, because most people will not be insured against that sort of risk. Who should bear the risk—the stable, which makes money out of a business, or the injured child’s family?

John Robertson: That is also my concern. My hon. Friend is much more knowledgeable than I am on that matter and I am sure it will be well worth listening to his contribution.

The problem is that the lawyers and the courts may not interpret the Bill in the way that we intend. I do not have my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon or anyone else in the Chamber in mind, but I have always had a thing about lawyers because they are the only ones who ever seem to make money these days. We are being crucified over expenses and various other items for which we might not claim. I want to put it on the record that I do not have a £10,000 kitchen, although my wife phoned today and said, “Does that mean we can get a new kitchen?” I said no. However, I digress. Lawyers will always interpret things differently. Someone once said that two lawyers together will give two different explanations because they can then both make money. Therein lies a problem. I am attracted by the idea of trying to define things better, as the hon.
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Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire would like to do, because I would prefer such matters to be tackled out of court, by insurance companies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon made some good comments about insurance companies. He said that there had not been many cases under the 1971 Act. That surprised me because I would have thought, given that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire is promoting the Bill, that there must have been several cases about which people had a problem. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned the problem of insurance costs for a riding school increasing by a large amount—I cannot remember whether he said that they had doubled—probably by much more than anybody had reason to expect. Those running a business—and a riding school is a business—would probably not have catered for that and would have to find the money from somewhere. That is not right. However, the argument is not with the Bill but with the insurance companies, if they are ripping people off. The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) shakes his heard and he may be right—I am not an expert, but if insurance policies go through the roof and no extra claims are made on them, I cannot understand why they would have to increase to the amount that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire suggested.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said that only a tiny number of cases would be affected. If that is the case, the Bill cannot possibly have a significant impact on the industry in increased costs of premiums. There are simply not enough cases to make an impact.

John Robertson: Does the hon. Member for Leominster want to intervene?

Bill Wiggin: It is not the number of cases but the size of the pay-out that is significant. That may solve hon. Members’ difficulties.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Member for Leominster appears to have intervened on an intervention, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) can cope with both interventions.

John Robertson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I think you give me more credit than I am due.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon answered his own question. I say to the hon. Member for Leominster that, if the amount is the problem, that must be examined, but it is not part of the Bill. [Interruption.] I thought that we were considering liability, not the amount of money that is paid out.

Bill Wiggin: The size of the premium reflects the risk. The risk is not necessarily in the number of claims but in their size. The insurance company essentially needs to get its money back and that is why the breadth of the liability, not the number of cases or claims, causes the premium to go up.

John Robertson: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but if I were running an insurance company, I would be talking about potential amounts rather than
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the actual amounts. To go back to the earlier part of my contribution, we do not know how someone whose finger has been bitten off through a letterbox or who has been trampled by a horse and crippled could get any of the liability, but it appears that insurance companies are charging for such claims anyway, even though they may never have to look after such a case.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend has been generous in giving way. The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) made a point about the cost of the pay-out, but if there is only a tiny number of cases, the insurance can be averaged out across the horse industry—indeed, across animal insurance generally—and that pushes the premium down.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend is right, and there is a problem.

I have spoken for far longer than I anticipated but I thank hon. Members for their interventions. Again, I thank the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire for promoting the Bill. I hope that the Under-Secretary will deal with my questions and concerns and I wish the Bill well.

10.39 am

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on his success in bringing the Bill before the House. I wish to speak briefly in support of it.

The Bill has been welcomed by people in various walks of life, particularly farmers, owners of equine centres and others who own non-dangerous animals, because of the lack of clarity in the 1971 Act, which we have already heard about. That lack of clarity means that folk in the situations that have been discussed, particularly farmers and owners of equine centres, face strict liability—and therefore risk paying potentially huge compensation claims—and massively inflated insurance premiums, even if there is no question of the owner being at fault.

The increased premiums that have resulted from that uncertainty have undoubtedly put small businesses, including many farms and equine centres, at risk in my constituency in south Cumbria. Those running such small and relatively unprofitable outfits face not just a financial threat, which has a debilitating impact on the business, but damage from the anxiety and stress that that causes.

We are not talking about wealthy people, by and large. In the south lakes area in my constituency, which includes not just parts of the Lake district but parts of the Yorkshire dales, there are many hill farmers under extreme financial pressure, on to whose land people come to go walking every week, and quite rightly. I do not want to get into foot and mouth, but the foot and mouth outbreak last year cost the average hill farmer in my constituency some £10,000, when their average income is probably half that normally. It is clearly debilitating for those people to face insurance premiums or the threat of paying such high compensation claims. We need to get away from that.

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We are not talking about people who are cavalier about their responsibilities, either. The aim of the Bill is to prevent unfair claims against people who have done all that they reasonably could to ensure safety. We have already heard that those who do not do that are covered by other avenues, and that should remain. Indeed, we would not want anyone who had suffered damage as a result of genuine negligence to have no recourse. That is not the aim of the Bill and it is certainly not mine in supporting it.

Normal farm animals, domestic animals or horses that cause accidents when behaving in a characteristic fashion, when all reasonable steps to prevent the action have been taken, are subject to strict liability. That is unreasonable and debilitating, and not just for the businesses concerned. We are living in a litigious society, but let us just accept it: all outdoor activity comes with a risk. We can put ourselves in little bubbles if we want, or we can accept that all life comes with an element of risk. If the threat of strict liability, which has resulted from that lack of clarity, reduced—perhaps it already is reducing—the amount of outdoor activity undertaken, whether it be with animals or around animals, that would be a very sad consequence. The Bill will help to remove stress and anxiety from conscientious people who may otherwise fall victim to their animals causing damage to others, through no fault of their own. The Bill will also allow a proper focus on genuinely dangerous animals and genuine acts of negligence.

I said that this would be a brief contribution and it will be. I finish by saying that the Bill will also signal an important victory for common sense, as it will mark a step back from our depressing slide towards an increasingly litigious society. For those reasons I support the Bill and commend it to the House.

10.44 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) not only on introducing the Bill, but on his persistence, as he has attempted to achieve a similar result before. Persistence often pays off, and I hope that it will today.

I declare an interest in a farming business that is entered in the Register of Members’ Interests. Listening to the hon. Gentleman emphasised my responsibility for a number of animals that I hope are not dangerous. Indeed, it might be in my personal interest to be home attending to those animals, rather than trying to alter legislation here.

For me, the main issue is the uncertainty and the consequences that flow from it. Much of this morning’s debate has been about businesses, but individuals who want to ride their horses in the countryside also face uncertainty about how they would be dealt with if an incident occurred. I am glad that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is supporting the proposals, because one of its intentions is that people should enjoy the countryside more, but such uncertainty does not encourage people to do so.

In a past role, I was chairman of the Brecon Beacons national park. One purpose of the national park is to encourage enjoyment there. Indeed, all the national parks in England and Wales encourage both walkers
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and riders. If we are to ensure that they have as much opportunity as possible to derive that enjoyment, that uncertainty must be dealt with.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the problems with insurance. That has certainly been my experience, too. I have received many representations from the Wales Trekking and Riding Association. The business has had its ups and downs over the years, but one particular problem is the increasing price of insurance. To give the House an example of where an inability to get insurance has closed a business down, Roy and Myfanwy Mitchell run a horse-drawn caravan business in my constituency that has been very successful—families really enjoy the experience—but in the past two years Roy and Myfanwy have unfortunately been quite unable to obtain insurance from any firm.

It is not a question of affordability; insurance is simply being denied people who keep ringing up and who want to have that opportunity. Indeed, a number of the caravans were used by children as part of their exhibitions for the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme. For a time, the local authority was able to get insurance to use the facility, but now even that has been denied. There are real problems. Not only has a business suffered, but people who could be enjoying the Welsh countryside can no longer do so.

Because of that uncertainty, we are seeing a sterilisation of the countryside. People are not going out and enjoying it with the freedom that they used to. I supported the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the right to roam, which did not make me that popular with some of the landowning interests in my area. One of the concerns of landowners was that they might be liable for animals grazing on their land that were involved in incidents with people exercising their right to access that land. The Bill would preclude that liability, but I am still keen that there should be more access to land and to the countryside. There will be obstacles to obtaining that, but the Bill will lessen some of those objections.

Mr. Crabb: The point that the hon. Gentleman is making is very important and is exactly why the Ramblers Association has come out in support of my Bill. It recognises that it has a shared interest with people who own countryside-related businesses, which is about opening up the countryside. Achieving clarity in law will help that.

Mr. Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I was coming to that point. People have often opposed increased access because they are afraid that they might make themselves liable for increased responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman has said that this is a small Bill, but it is important and will contribute to making the countryside more accessible to people and increasing their enjoyment of it. I wish it all possible success.

10.50 am

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I welcome the Bill and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) for his hard work and for using the opportunity of being drawn in the ballot to introduce it. I also pay tribute to my hon.
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Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), whose ten-minute Bill two years ago raised the profile of this important matter.

As for declaring interests, I am the owner of some cows, a bull and a few sheep, but I am allergic to the dust in horses’ coats. It gives me a hay fever-type reaction, which is very unpleasant. Despite that, I am a patron of Herefordshire’s Riding for the Disabled.

As hon. Members will know, the Bill has considerable cross-party support. The recent early-day motion 1092, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, and the earlier early-day motion 14, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), which I co-sponsored, have attracted widespread support. That is because there is a strong feeling that the operation of the current law is unfairly punitive, especially in relation to animal ownership and riding schools.

I support the Bill because it will help to correct an anomaly in the law that I do not believe Parliament intended. I do not believe that Parliament would have legislated to provide that the strictest liability be applied to animal owners when their animals have been involved in an accident, even when the owner has taken all reasonable steps to anticipate and prevent it. Nor do I think that Parliament intended to cause rising insurance premiums or to strangle riding schools and force them out of existence.

During the original debate on the 1971 Act, section 2 received little comment. It was referred to mostly as a code, bringing together the existing laws and the recommendations of the 1967 Law Commission report on civil liabilities for animals. However, it is worth mentioning the short debate on section 2 in the other place, which appears to support the notion that Parliament and the Government of the time may not have intended the Act to be interpreted as it was in the Mirvahedy case. The late Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone, commented on how the Bill had changed from an earlier draft. In relation to concerns about an owner becoming liable for

he reassured the other place that,

Furthermore, on Second Reading in this House, the then Attorney-General indicated that the provisions of section 2 originally proposed by the Law Commission had been changed so that

That is good legalese. He explained this change, commenting that in the Bill as previously drafted,

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That change was the insertion of section 2(2)(b), which, as hindsight has demonstrated, provides contention and uncertainty rather than the improvement and clarification that were originally intended.

The Law Commission’s report that laid the foundations for the 1971 Act also went through the various permutations of strict liability. The application of strict liability under section 2 of the Act has led to much confusion and criticism by the courts, despite the attempts to clarify matters during its passage through Parliament in the early 1970s. There have been a number of cases in which decisions have been made under section 2, and in paragraph 9 of the Mirvahedy v. Henley judgment, Lord Nicholls stated:

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