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HINT OF U-TURN ON LIVE HORSE EXPORTS

09:00 - 01 April 2004

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael last night hinted at a possible Government U-turn over the export of live horses for slaughter - as he came under intense pressure at Westminster to ban the "abhorrent" trade.

Speaking at the end of a 90-minute Commons debate on the issue Mr Michael, who is also the "Minister for the Horse", said the Government would examine the practical details of this week's vote in the European Parliament that would allow the UK to ban live horse exports.

"It is interesting and it may be helpful," he said. "We are going to look at it in detail."

His comments represent a significant shift from the minister, who has previously insisted that a simple ban on the live export of horses and ponies for human consumption would be "unworkable and unenforceable".

Jo White, campaigns manager for the International League for the Protection of Horses, welcomed Mr Michael's comments as "an encouraging step forward".

But she warned that more pressure would be needed to ensure the Government acted when EU agricultural ministers vote on the issue at the end of this month.

Last year the WMN led a campaign during which 65,982 people signed a petition opposed to the live export of horses, ponies and donkeys for slaughter abroad.

Mr Michael came under intense pressure to act this week after MEPs voted through two amendments with the backing of David Byrne, the European Commissioner for animal health, that would allow the UK to ban the trade.

Shadow Countryside Minister James Gray warned Mr Michael that he would go down in history as the "Minister for Horse Slaughter" if he failed to take up the solution proposed by the European Parliament.

Mr Gray, who rode into Parliament on horseback to highlight the issue, said: "The minister finds himself in an extremely difficult political situation.

"He has the people of Britain against him. His comments today are encouraging, but we need to see firm action.

"We here in Britain love our horses - we do not want to see them exported for slaughter and turned into sausages."

Mr Gray said there was an "overwhelmingly strong moral case" for a total ban.

And he warned that it was "likely" that an export trade would resume unless the minister acted to ban it.

Both Mr Gray and the Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Andrew George praised the WMN's "fantastic" campaign on the issue.

Mr Michael yesterday acknowledged that he had been besieged by thousands of letters from concerned members of the public on the issue. And he insisted that the Government did want to block any resumption of the live export trade.

Commenting on the European Parliament's amendments this week he added: "We need to know how it would work in practice.

"I certainly give a commitment to look at that very carefully to see if it gives us something we can use. We are not sure that it will, and I don't want to build up hopes, because I don't think it's the easy stroke that a resolution sometimes looks."

Mr Michael said the Government was still working on its preferred alternative, which would impose tight animal welfare restrictions on horse exports.

Mr George said he would welcome any arrangement that would prevent the resumption of the live export trade.

But he warned Mr Michael that he would prompt such public anger that he would be forced to resign if his plans failed to block the trade.


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BLAIR WARNED OF 'DEEP UNREST' IF BAN FUDGED

Award-winning writer Carla Lane has warned the Government it will face "deep unrest" if it fails to take up an available opt-out clause on live horse exports. Carla, writer of the BBC series Bread, says that if the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) allows live horse exports to go ahead, animal lovers will feel "trodden on".

On Tuesday the European Parliament granted Britain an exemption from live exports, but only if the Government decides to use it.

If it fails to, Carla is promising a "mass protest" - including a television appeal urging people to stay away from the polls.

She said: "Unless Mr Blair takes the opportunities on offer I would urge anyone who loves animals to make it known they will not vote in the next General Election.

"Politicians only start listening when they feel there is something in it for them. It is time the nation stood up, said 'enough is enough' and demanded something is done."

Carla has written to Defra "around 1,000 times" and visited Brussels on three occasions campaigning to block live horse exports. She also hand-delivered more than 65,000 signatures from WMN readers to Downing Street in protest.

She said: "It is a disgrace that horses will have to travel hundreds of miles to be slaughtered, chopped up and eaten.

"Horses are a friend of man, a friend who carried us to victory and died for us in their thousands. We must make the Government see that if we are ignored there will be deep unrest.

"This is a classic example of how rule-making in Brussels is a farce. We are not a horse-eating country, but others are. There are different values involved but only one law."


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EXPORT HISTORY: UK BAN IS OBSOLETE

09:00 - 01 April 2004

There is some confusion over the current level of protection in Britain against the trade of exporting live horses for slaughter. A ban was introduced in 1937 but became obsolete under the 1991 Animal Transportation Directive on the free movement of goods. This created a loophole in the law which horse exporters were keen to exploit.

But when John Gummer was Agriculture Minister in 1991 he attempted to close the loophole by negotiating an "opt-out" to the new rules. It meant that rather than challenging the rules outright, horses worth less than 715 and ponies worth less than 220 could not be transported.

As the price of horses and ponies being exported for meat would be significantly less than that, it effectively meant a back-door ban on the live export of equines.

However, when the directive was updated in 1995, this opt-out system collapsed.

The significance of the removal of this clause did not appear to be noted by the then Ministry of Agriculture, but the issue was not highlighted by animal protection groups who were confident that animal exporters had not noticed the loophole.

The removal of the UK opt-out finally came to light last July when Commissioner David Byrne published his EU White Paper on protecting animals during transportation.

To have the UK opt-out enshrined in law Defra must argue the case at the Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels later this month . The opt-out was passed by the European Parliament earlier this week but needs the Council of Ministers to rubber stamp it before it can become law.