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Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is quoting Lord Nicholls’s judgment in the Mirvahedy case, but does he agree that Lord Nicholls said that there were ultimately two options? They are the two options before the House today, which are matters for Parliament to decide: whether we wish to have strict liability or something rather less, as the Bill suggests. It is not about history, it is about where we are now.

Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman sets out the choice that we will face, which I shall sum up later. I agree that that is what we must decide today. Roughly speaking, we must choose whether someone in Mr. Mirvahedy’s situation would in future be able to get compensation. If we wanted there to be insurance for risk caused by unforeseen circumstances, over which the owner had no control, we should not amend section 2(2) but introduce a Bill that would insist on compulsory third-party insurance, just as we do with cars. We should insist that, just as a person cannot drive their car without being insured, they should not be allowed to have an animal without insurance. That is not our intention, so the Bill would remove the question mark about whether people should have third-party cover for owning animals.

Mr. Dismore: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I assume that he has read the Riding Establishments Acts 1964 and 1970, which require compulsory insurance for riding schools.

Bill Wiggin: The Bill does not just apply to riding schools. The point of the proposed change is that it would apply to every type of animal and all unforeseen circumstances. That is why the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who mentioned insurance premiums, was wrong. It is the size of the risk that causes premiums to rise. Having provisions that apply only to riding schools is contrary to what the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said in an earlier intervention about the damage that a dog could do. I do not wish to be harsh on him, but he might have contradicted himself in his interventions.

Section 2(2) of the 1971 Act created the view, which the Mirvahedy case turned into a legal precedent, that if an incident involves an animal, regardless of the circumstances, it cannot be considered an accident. The animal’s owner will always be strictly liable. A number of passages in the Law Lords’ decision were devoted to
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that point, and in particular to “normal” and “abnormal” characteristics and circumstances. Despite their decision, the Law Lords noted the controversy surrounding the case and the test in section 2(2)(b) of whether strict liability occurs.

Lord Slynn of Hadley, who allowed the appeal by the Henleys, commented in paragraph 50:

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, who dismissed the appeal by the Henleys, similarly remarked in paragraph 31:

Arguing that the subsection was an anomaly for Parliament and the legislative process to resolve, he stated:

As legislators, we have a duty to set out and create laws that have clear meanings and to outline the circumstances whereby blame can be apportioned to one party or another.

Section 2 of the 1971 Act needed to be changed and the Bill takes the debate forward. I welcome the fact that the Government have indicated their support for that change and clarification of the law. It is very rare for me to welcome anything that the Government do, although I am fond of the Minister, whom I shadow, but in this case I think it excellent that the Government have supported the Bill and its clarification of the law. I also note that the consultation carried out by the former Minister, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), showed that 26 out of 29 respondents favoured amending the Animals Act 1971.

Mr. Crabb: My hon. Friend helpfully mentions that 26 out of the 29 respondents to the consultation supported my Bill, but is he aware that of the three that were not initially supportive, one—the Ramblers Association—is now very publicly supporting the Bill?

Bill Wiggin: I was not aware of that and it is helpful that my hon. Friend has put that on the record.

It is important that the legislation be amended because the impact of the Mirvahedy case has ricocheted beyond the parties in that case and is having a devastating effect on the nation’s riding schools. The precedent set by the case implies that wherever a case involves an animal, the owner will almost certainly be liable for any accidents that take place. That judgment has led to a massive rise in insurance premiums. In Pembrokeshire, the Llandwana stables saw its insurance premiums rise from £2,000 to £6,000 after an incident that was beyond its control. Others have seen their premiums rise from £858 in 2001 to £7,051 and some figures have suggested average premium increases of about 70 per cent.

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In the past four years, the number of riding schools has dropped by about a quarter from 2,500 down to 1,850. Not all of that fall in numbers can be directly attributed to the rising insurance costs, but it does remain a factor. It is another burden placed on a small and predominantly rural business, and it would be a great loss to our country, especially to rural areas, if riding school numbers continued to fall. Riding is enjoyed by 2.4 million people each year, and it is estimated that double that number have an active interest in the industry. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire echoed those figures when he opened the debate. We have a world class equestrian team, but where will our future champions be able to train if, by the 2012 Olympics in London, there are only a handful of riding schools left?

There are, of course, good reasons why the Animals Act 1971 is in place, and the legal principle behind it is a fair one. It is designed to protect people from dangerous animals—something that we all agree is important—and to ensure that cases involving the owners of animals that can pose a danger to the public and cause injuries or damage are handled and accommodated in a suitable manner with no risk to the public. That principle is fair, which is why the Act does not need amending in its entirety.

It is the job of this House to legislate clearly and to reflect the needs of our constituents. The choice before us for the future is very stark. Do we think that Mr. Mirvahedy should have been able to claim damages after being hit by a horse or that, provided all reasonable steps had been taken, he should not have been eligible to claim? Because we are generally well-meaning people, we probably want it both ways. Sadly, in no small part due to the litigious nature of our society, we cannot have it both ways. The reality is that we as legislators must work to close the gap between the letter of the law and justice. That means that we must allow people the freedom— [Interruption.]

Mr. Dismore rose—

Bill Wiggin: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a few moments, but he asked me about this matter earlier and I want to finish this part of my speech.

To close the gap between the letter of the law and justice means that we must allow people the freedom to own and enjoy animals responsibly rather than prohibit that by stealthy insurance premiums. We need to make certain that those owners do not escape their responsibilities by ensuring that they take all sensible precautions, but we need to end the open-ended risk to owners. It is not a legal requirement for people to insure their animals as they do their cars, so we should be defending this privilege of ownership by correcting the inconsistencies in section 2(2)(b). My hon. Friend’s Bill remedies that situation, while still remaining sensitive to incidents where it is appropriate for owners of animals to be liable for damages and injuries—where they are responsible for them.

Mr. Dismore: Is the hon. Gentleman therefore quite prepared to see people who are seriously injured or just injured go uncompensated because they are unable to take out insurance against risks that they do not even know exist, as compared with people who are able to insure because of their ownership of the particular animal?

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Bill Wiggin: No, I think that the hon. Gentleman has got that completely wrong. It is clear from his interventions all morning that he has been struggling to understand the Bill’s difficulties, although I have some sympathy with where he is coming from. Perhaps this is the best way to put it: if we really think that the owner is responsible for all his animal’s actions at any time, we should be legislating to insist on proper, compulsory third-party insurance. I do not believe, however, that that is what we as a nation believe. I do not think that our constituents would want every owner to have a third-party insurance policy for their pet, irrespective of its size. The Mirvahedy case was a very clear example of where the owner could not have done anything to prevent the accident. The question we face therefore is whether or not we should insist on insurance. If we do, we should not be amending the Animals Act 1971 by the Bill. Indeed, if the hon. Member for Hendon believes that, he should bring in his own Bill to insist on that. That, however, was never the intention, so the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of my position is incorrect. He could paint himself into a corner and create the scenario that he mentioned in his intervention, but that would be wrong. I believe that we need to defend the right to take some degree of risk.

Let me provide a small example. When I took my children to learn to ride, my youngest child was not allowed to do so because it was impossible to insure him. As his parent, I think that that should be my decision, not the decision of the riding school’s insurance company. However, we are where we are, and the Bill will release the riding school of that decision and give it to me as a parent. The hon. Member for Hendon may think that that is wrong, but the bottom line is that that is what parental responsibility is all about. We have to be careful not to fall too easily into what I would call a nanny state solution; we should rather give people the freedom to do what they want to do.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman provides an interesting example because section 5 of the original Act would provide a defence in precisely those circumstances, in the absence of negligence.

Bill Wiggin: I am not quite sure that I understood what the hon. Gentleman meant by that. Perhaps he would like to intervene again to clarify it.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman has focused on section 2 of the original Act, which is what we are debating today, but section 5 provides a series of statutory defences. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in riding school cases, those defences have been heavily relied upon by people who have undertaken to go riding and have had an accident simply because they decided to go riding. That defence has stood on a number of occasions both before and after the Mirvahedy case.

Bill Wiggin: Now I understand what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I am grateful for that clarification. The point I have been trying to make is that we have to commit one way or the other. I am prepared to commit to not insisting on compulsory insurance; if that is wrong, we should be addressing the issue again in a different way and ensure that everyone who owns an animal has the responsibility to insure it.
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It should therefore be a responsibility that comes with animal ownership. At the moment, it does not and that is not going to change, so I think that the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation is wrong.

With this amending Bill, the legislation can be improved and become clearer. Parliament can act to help prevent the decline in riding schools and we can continue to encourage responsible animal ownership. I think that the Bill does exactly what is needed: it clarifies the position that the judges got themselves into and it will make it much easier for people to own animals, confident in the knowledge that if they behave responsibly and try to foresee every sort of accident that can happen and protect themselves and their animals accordingly, they can carry on with the privilege of ownership. The open-ended risk hanging over animal owners would be removed by the Bill, so the measure is helpful and important. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire on proposing the Bill, on his early-day motion and on his campaign to ensure that animal ownership is a privilege that can be enjoyed by the many, not just the few.

11.9 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I, too, begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), who began his remarks by referring to Riding for the Disabled in his constituency. A number of other hon. Members have also referred to that worthwhile charity. I thank him for his kind remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who worked hard on the issue when he had my role.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the consultation that he carried out and the number of people who enjoy riding. I should mention that last year, in his constituency, I rode a horse for the first time. He went on to talk about how riding schools would bring on the Olympic champions of tomorrow. I stand ready for the task. If it is my duty as a Minister of the Crown to enter the British equestrian team, and if people are needed, the team can get my phone number from the House of Commons exchange. You never know what might happen, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Government are pleased to confirm their support for the Bill. The hon. Gentleman has brought together an important coalition of interests, including the Country Land and Business Association, the National Farmers Union, the British Horse Society, the Countryside Alliance and, indeed, the ramblers, and it is welcome to present the case for changing the Animals Act 1971. As he said, he has worked closely with my Department and parliamentary counsel, and we are grateful for the way in which he conducted those discussions.

Mr. Dismore: That list of consultees seems to come from one side of the fence, if I may put it that way. What consultations has my hon. Friend’s Department had—indeed, what consultations is he aware of—with those who represent victims or victims’ groups?

Jonathan Shaw: I can assure my hon. Friend that the consultation ranged far and wide and included insurance companies, so that they would be aware of the concern that he is expressing. We always ensure that
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our consultations are available on our website, and we do our level best to ensure that everyone has access and can comment.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again, because he has not really answered the point: insurers are on the same side of the fence as well. The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, which the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned, told me that it first became aware of the Bill when he phoned up very recently. It certainly does not support the Bill in the way that was portrayed earlier.

Jonathan Shaw: As I say, we conduct our consultations in accordance with the rules set out by the Cabinet Office.

Mr. Crabb: To clarify the point, let me say that no one has attempted to portray the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers as coming out publicly in support of my Bill. I did not say that, nor did I even attempt to hint at it. I said that I have discussed the Bill with the association, verbally and in writing. At this stage, it has raised no concerns whatever with me. We have had consultative meetings here in the House of Commons, involving barristers who have represented victims and also insurance companies. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is not correct in trying to portray the consultation as one-sided. It has been broad and the range of inputs that we have received has been helpful.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for what I think was an intervention on me. It is a considerable achievement for the hon. Gentleman to introduce the Bill, and his energy and dedication are to be commended.

The case for amending the Act is, we think, persuasive. Since the legislation was passed, there has been disagreement and conflicting case law concerning the interpretation of section 2(2), and in particular section 2(2)(b), both as concerns the purpose of the first phrase,

and the meaning of the last,

The result of that confusion over the meaning of the wording has been general uncertainty and, following the apparent extension of the scope of strict liability to animal owners in respect of the Mirvahedy case, which we have heard about, growing concern that anyone who owns an animal—a dog, a horse, a cow or a goat—could face unlimited liability for events that they had no control over and, indeed, did not even know had occurred.

The Government have long understood the concern felt by animal owners and their representative bodies, such as the CLA and BHS, which have campaigned vigorously for a change in the law. The question whether the 1971 Act could be amended was reflected in “Strategy for the Horse Industry in England and Wales”, which the Government were delighted to produce in conjunction with the British Horse Industry Confederation in 2005. Passing the Bill would be another achievement in the pursuit of that strategy.

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