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09:00 - 30 March 2004

Today the Western Morning News' campaign against the live export of horses ponies and donkeys will beat on the door of the European Parliament.

As MEPs meet for a crunch vote on an amendment which would allow Britain to legally ban the cruel trade, a deputation from the Western Morning News and the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) will make Europe aware of the depth of public anger over the issue.

The European Parliament will meet in Strasbourg today to debate putting an amendment into a draft EU regulation aimed at improving the welfare of animals. This will give legal basis in EU law for Britain to ban horse exports.

President of the European Parliament Patrick Cox will be given a copy of the Western Morning News' front page emblazoned with 65,982 - the number of signatures collected from horse and pony lovers who joined our No Live Exports campaign - and an 85,000 signature petition by the ILPH.

MEPs will vote on the amendment - tabled by Westcountry MEP Neil Parish - tomorrow, just hours before Minister for the Horse Alun Michael will face criticism in the House of Commons for refusing to lobby fellow EU agriculture ministers for an opt-out to protect British horses, ponies and donkeys.

Pressure on the Government to argue for an opt-out clause in the EU draft regulation will increase if MEPs back the amendment. The draft regulation will be voted on for the final time by agriculture ministers from each of the EU member countries - including Margaret Beckett - at the meeting of the Council of Ministers in Brussels in April.

Ministers could decide to remove the parliament's amendment, but if MEPs back it, it will be increasingly difficult for Mrs Beckett to argue that there is no support in Europe for an opt-out.

Jo White, campaigns manager for the ILPH, said: "From our point of view it is a fantastic opportunity to show the level of support in Britain for an amendment. If it goes through on Wednesday, it will demonstrate to the British government that the European Parliament are behind it and will strengthen the argument for the case."

Defra Minister Alun Michael is expected to face tough questions in the Commons tomorrow afternoon from Tory countryside spokesman James Gray, who will arrive at the Houses of Parliament on horseback, about why he will not back an opt-out.

Mr Michael has previously refused to argue for an opt-out for Britain, on the advice of Defra officials who believe that such an opt-out would have no basis in EU law and would be rejected outright by ministers from other member states.