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8.8 p.m.

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, there seem to be two separate, although related, strands to the question brought to our attention by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. They are not quite the same strands to which my noble friend Lord Onslow referred.

The first is whether the Government's plan to introduce passports for all of Britain's 900,000 horses is a proportional solution to the problem of drug-free horsemeat entering the food chain. My research shows that all those horses that need passports for international travel, whether to compete or for breeding purposes, already have them. The current system works more than adequately as I have not come across evidence of major problems.

The vast majority of horses do not need passports for the simple reason that they do not travel abroad. Very few horses from this country are intended or likely to enter the food chain, so the most obvious solution to the problem is to ensure that any horses that are sent abroad for meat must have a passport. No passport, no travel, no meat problem. I should imagine that that is a relatively straightforward solution to a relatively simple problem. I cannot think for the life of

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me why the 90 per cent of horses in the UK that do not travel abroad, and which consequently will not enter the food chain, should be obliged to subject their owners to pointless bureaucratic processes at some expense but for no discernible benefit.

The second question concerns whether the European Commission's decision means that the Government are obliged to introduce passports for all horses in order to comply. I understand that the Government are obliged to ensure that horses containing certain drugs do not enter the food chain, and to prevent that from happening, no horse should travel without a passport listing the drugs that have been administered to it over a period before travel.

The wording of the decision does not compel the introduction of a universal passport scheme, although that may be the best solution for those countries that have a vibrant horsemeat market, which the United Kingdom does not. The manner in which that decision is implemented will be different in each country. I am sure that the Minister will tell the House how carefully the Government have consulted. I am sure that that is right, but while those horse organisations that will benefit financially from universal passports are in favour, the organisations that will not benefit are clearly not in favour.

My research, which was as extensive as it could be in the time available, leads me to conclude that those who need passports are happy with the current system, and that those who know virtually nothing of the Government's proposals and do not want to know. I am in their camp.

I also understand that the Government believe that a universal passport scheme could lead to a national horse database, which in turn will raise the standard of horse breeding and improve welfare. That is an interesting idea, but it is not relevant and it is probably wrong. The UK already has one of the best breeding industries at many levels in the world. Of course there is room for improvement, but I cannot see how a database will make a difference. Your Lordships might like to remember how often the House has been told of the benefits to be accrued from the Home Office's database of firearms' ownership, which four or five years later, has still to be set up.

If your Lordships cast your minds back to dog licences, one of the reasons why they were abolished was that responsible owners licensed their dogs and irresponsible owners did not. The same applies to car tax discs. I see no real benefits in compelling all owners to have passports for their horses. Even if there were benefits, they are peripheral to tonight's debate.

I shall finish where I started. Does every horse in Britain really need a passport to ensure that no horse containing proscribed drugs enters the European horsemeat market? Are the Government really obliged to set up a universal passport system at an estimated cost of 20 million to meet their obligations to the Commission in respect of decision 2000/68? The short answers I suspect are no and no.

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8.12 p.m.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, I hope that the House will accept that in speaking from these Benches I am in no way anti-European when I ask how likely it is that we would be discussing passports for horses, ponies and donkeys if we were not members of the European Union. I suggest that the issue has little relevance to our horse culture.

I cast my mind back to discussions that we had on dangerous dogs some years ago. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swawffham Prior, will remember those discussions as an issue about which some of us felt quite strongly. The Government's arguments had some justification, which reflects the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. One of the strongest arguments was that the owners whose dogs needed to be registered were the least likely to register their dogs. The same goes for horses or ponies that should be registered because their owners are likely to mistreat them, lose or get rid of them on purpose. Such owners are the least likely to put information on a passport or some identity form.

This proposal was originally introduced by the European Commission as a means to simplify trade—that was probably unnecessary as well. Some time later, we came across the question of the food chain, which really does not apply to us. As other noble Lords have said, it applies to Belgium and France in particular.

The Government would have done better had they turned their attention to the shocking and indescribable conditions of horses exported from here for slaughter to those countries that eat horses, stamped on that and got it properly under control before acceding to this measure. Policing is an especially difficult problem, as was mentioned. One visualises all kinds of shifty little men with briefcases and notebooks going around riding stables, presumably to check the papers, but probably for other reasons as well.

The Government have not thought this through. They say, "If Europe does it, we have to do it". I personally wish that Europe had said that all dogs should be registered, because the reasons for registering dogs are much more cogent and persuasive than those made for horses and ponies. I wish that the Government would take a little more time. If we were dealing with the matter outside the context of the European Union, there would be more consultation and consideration of the detail and of proper information before it arrived at your Lordships' House.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Astor for giving us the opportunity to refer to the order tonight. He fully explained his reservations about the introduction of the order, which I cannot repeat in the limited time at my disposal.

I have three specific questions. First, is the order necessary in a country where horsemeat is not eaten? Secondly, should the scheme enhance breeding

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programmes, as has been proposed? Is that really its purpose? If so, let us have that made clear. Thirdly, will the requirements be applied to countries outside the United Kingdom? What happens to animals that are imported into countries for human consumption?

In a country where horsemeat is not eaten in the same way as it is on the Continent, why should owners in England—I stress England—be burdened with rules designed to cover but so very few? Why indeed? As other noble Lords have said, horses or ponies sold for export for human consumption could be required to have a passport before they are exported. That point has been clearly made by all noble Lords who have spoken.

Has that suggestion been made to the Government? Have they raised it with the European Commission? If so, what was the outcome of those discussions? Did the Government vote in favour of the horse passport scheme, or was theirs the only voice expressing concern? Or is this yet one more statutory instrument that must be implemented whether it has the support of England or not? As I said, will countries outside the EU be required to meet such restrictions, or is this yet again bureaucracy and cost placed on European citizens?

We have heard noble Lords on all sides of the House express concern—in fact, no one has spoken in favour of the scheme. That should concentrate the Government's mind on questioning the consultation that they have undertaken. The order is costly. It is estimated to cost 20 million—obviously, with ongoing costs after that. There is concern about animal welfare and the likelihood that animals will be dumped.

I also have practical concerns, because the order refers only to England. What happens to cross-border movement of animals kept in Scotland or Wales when they are shooed from one side where they do not need a passport to the other where they do?

The whole question of the universal passport scheme has been raised again in the debate; it has been considered unnecessary, costly, unenforceable and runs the risk of increasing animal welfare concerns, about which all noble Lords are anxious. The order is not required by other countries outside England.

In a country where the majority of horses are kept—we have heard the figure of 900,000, of which only 10,000 reach the overseas market—is this really the way to deal with a statutory instrument? Interestingly enough, if it had not been for my noble friend, we should not have had this opportunity to debate the instrument at all.

There are many questions that the Government need to answer; I hope that the Minister will. He should be able to do so. My noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke said that he is happy to be written to. Finally, in the age of microchips, cannot we use them to help with this issue?

8.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I appreciate the initiation of

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this debate introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and the contributions of noble Lords.

A number of misconceptions have been running round the House in the course of this debate. The noble Baroness correctly said that no noble Lord who has spoken appears to be wholly in favour of the proposition. It is perhaps incumbent on me to explain some of the background. The Commission proposed it at the initial stage. There was concern about the availability of certain medicines that are frequently used to treat horses but which have not been authorised for food-producing animals. Under EU law, horses count as animals that could get into the food chain. The Commission decided that in order to protect the human food chain, all horses needed to be accompanied by an identity document. The directive is based on that proposition. It is also true that by requiring all equines to have passports, the UK can continue to use those medicines that are frequently used for horses that are in no sense destined for the human food chain and at the same time help those consumers in other EU countries who do eat meat.

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