Horse Passports

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]

8.13 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I start from the proposition that it is an essential duty of Government to try to minimise the bureaucracy that our constituents must deal with in their daily lives. I want Ministers to get out of bed every day and ask, "How can I make life easier? What rule can I scrap today?" The saga of horse passports would seem to suggest that today's Ministers get out of bed each day and do precisely the opposite.

By the end of December, all horses, ponies and donkeys will have to have a passport. It is not for travelling or for sale or purchase; it is just for existing. There are no exceptions. As one newspaper put it,

Let us clear about where that requirement came from. European Commission decision 93/623 required registered horses born after 1998 to be accompanied by a passport when they are moved. The intention was to simplify the trade in pure-bred horses. Commission decision 2000/68 amended that decision to ensure that horses treated with certain drugs did enter the food chain. Under that decision, all horses will require a passport setting out all medicines taken if the horse is ultimately intended for human consumption.

The Government decided after consultation to implement the directive by introducing a compulsory system of passports for all horses, backed by fines of up to #5,000 or six months' imprisonment. Four questions need to be answered. Is a passport scheme necessary, did the Government consult properly, is their proposal on implementing the decision the right one, and have they fully understood the drawbacks of their scheme? [Hon. Members: "No."] My hon. Friends pre-empt me: the answer is no to all four questions.

The Government should have fought the scheme to a standstill in Europe. Pigs and sheep do not have passports. Cows now have passports, but they do not include any information about drugs. At the abattoir, the farmer is simply asked whether any drugs that could enter the food chain have been administered in the past six months. The same procedure could apply to horses, especially in countries such as the UK, where the overwhelming majority of horses never enter the food chain—and a very good thing too. European countries such as France that eat horse flesh import much of it from countries outside the European Union. Will this bureaucratic nonsense be imposed on those countries? Of course not. The EU decision will not even serve the purpose it is intended to serve; it should have been resisted.

Will the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life pledge to prevent other such proposals? It would be ridiculous to have passports for every animal that is reared for, or may conceivably end up in, the food chain, including chickens, ducks and pigs. Farmers who are suffering under dreadful bureaucracy will want a clear answer.

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I do not believe that the Government consulted adequately. The press release from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that announced the compulsory passport proposal said that

My evidence is that the situation is much more complex. I have received submissions from a large number of organisations that either oppose passports or believe that the Government have got it badly wrong, including the British Palomino Society, the Donkey Breed Society, the National Equine Welfare Council, the Pony Club, British Dressage, the Association of British Riding Schools and many others.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I am president of the Association of British Riding Schools and a former consultant to the BHIC. The association opposes the proposal, and the BHIC, which DEFRA cites as being in favour of the proposal, is split down the middle. Two members are in favour, two against.

Mr. Cameron: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and shall talk later about the response that the ABRS has given me.

I cannot claim that I have conducted a consultation on the same scale as the Government or the BHIC. However, some of the bodies I have mentioned were not listed in the British Equestrian Federation consultation—that was supposed to be part of the BHIC's work. The Donkey Breed Society said that

Some organisations involved in the consultation have major misgivings, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said. Some of the organisations have many thousands of members. The Association of British Riding Schools, for example, represents 65,000 horses; the Pony Club has 33,000 members. That is just the organisations—how much does the ordinary owner of a horse, pony or donkey know about the plans? I conducted a telephone survey of small livery yards and riding schools in my constituency, and their answer was, "Virtually nothing."

I have a nagging doubt about the approach of the BHIC, which is focused on the top end of the industry, and works with the British Horseracing Board and the Thoroughbred Breeders Association. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) knows, those organisations are vital. However, racehorse owners have always had a lot of paperwork. I am concerned about the small owners, people who own a horse for hacking, keep a mule as a pet, or have a pony for the children. The British Horse Society, attempting to justify the introduction of compulsory passports, said:

I simply do not believe that that is a solid justification for this sort of bureaucracy. If I were to be unkind, I would call it slightly self-serving. The ABRS said that

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the consultation was seriously flawed, and called the BHIC "unrepresentative and undemocratic". I cannot say for certain whether it is right, but I ask the Minister what he will do to seek assurances about this matter before he goes ahead with this misguided compulsory scheme.

My third question was whether the Government have got it right in bringing in a compulsory system. The DEFRA press release gives three justifications for the compulsory system.

First, it says,

I have to tell the Minister that the reverse could be the case. If owners do not obtain a passport, they may find it very difficult to get treatment from a vet, and they may find it very difficult to find someone who will take the horse at the end of its life.

Secondly, the Government claim—and this is extraordinary—that the system could help cut the over-breeding of wild ponies. I find that hard to believe. One would have thought that wild ponies would have to be exempt from compulsory passports, but apparently not. The vision of local authority inspectors chasing across Dartmoor trying to check that two mating ponies have the correct paperwork is one to which I cannot do full justice—perhaps the Minister can do so when he replies.

Thirdly, according to the Government, having all horses registered would help the equine industry to use the breeding data to improve the quality of the British herd. All that I can say to that is "Oh, please!" The herd, if one can use such a phrase for such a diverse group of animals, is permanently improving anyway. The breeding of great racehorses, the saving of rare breeds and the production of great hunters have happened for decades, even centuries, without the need for wretched passports.

In fact, the opposite could happen. The Shetland Pony Association states:

There are alternatives to a compulsory system. We should start from the proposition that the vast majority of British horses will not enter the human food chain. As the website "Saddle-up" puts it,

I ask the Minister to look again at this issue.

Could, at the very least, the Select Committee be asked to carry out a quick inquiry, take evidence and make a recommendation?

It may be worth considering the solution offered by the Spotted Pony Society, which I consider to be right. It suggests a simple order stating:

That would satisfy the directive; no more, no less.
. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful case against this dismal

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proposal. Does he agree that the Government would have been far better occupied in trying to deal with the appalling conditions in which tens of thousands of horses are shipped to France for food consumption, rather than monkeying around with British horses and ponies, which are already kept to a very high standard?

Mr. Cameron: That is absolutely right. In fact, what the Government are suggesting could make matters worse, because if we have more of these passports more horses could find themselves transported in horrible conditions right the way across Europe. That is what the Government system will make possible.

Perhaps the Minister could tell us what progress other European countries have made in implementing the directive. I suspect that we all know the answer.

My fourth and final question was whether the Government had fully understood all the drawbacks of the proposed compulsory system. I think that the answer again is a solid "No".

The first drawback is the cost. There are estimates that the passports will cost around #20 each, or perhaps a little more. There are estimates of 850,000 horses in the UK. So even if half already have passports—and they do not—that is around #9 million of new cost.

The situation could be much worse. If every horse will need a vet's examination before the passport is issued, the cost could be as much as #100. Think of the small riding school or livery stable. They suffered from foot and mouth disease, because they could not go off the roads. They are desperately worried about the Hunting Bill, and now they have this.

Mrs. Hayes has a riding stables near Lincoln. She has 16 horses. She believes that the system could cost her #1,600. That is a lot of money for a small business. Another owner of a BHS and ABRS-approved riding centre has written to me saying that

    "the scheme will put an unacceptable burden on riding schools . . . the issue has been misrepresented to the Equestrian Industry, who are only now waking up to its implications."

The Pony Club is thoroughly depressed about the measure. It wrote to me about

    "the financial burden put on our members by yet another cost."

The British Driving Association, which represents 15,000 people and 30,000 horses, makes the point that the cost of employing a vet will rise. It states:

    "It will be compulsory for every single medicine . . . to be recorded in the passport . . . from wormers to simple painkillers . . . costs will inevitably rise to cover the costs of vets filling in details."

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that the people who are most likely to go through all the palaver and pay all the costs will be the responsible horse owners, who should not be checked on in the first place?

Mr. Cameron: My hon. Friend is entirely right. There will be people who have owned horses for many years, but will not comply. As a result, it will be those horses that suffer—a point that I shall deal with at the end of my speech.

British Dressage makes with great vigour its point about the situation in which vets will be placed. What will happen if an animal does not have a passport?

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The owner may feel prohibited from calling a vet, so the horse will suffer. Alternatively, the owner might go to the black market to get the drugs, so the horse could be mistreated. If a proper vet is called, he or she might feel inhibited about administering drugs that cannot be written into a passport. What happens if somebody is out riding without their passport and they have an accident? The Palomino Society asks:

    "would the owner be expected to produce the passport before veterinary attention could be given?"

It goes on to say

    "Surely such non treatment would be in breach of the Royal College's recommendations."

There is also the situation that could occur at the end of a horse's life. As I said, there will be two types of passport. The first says that the equid is not for human consumption. The second, with all the drugs information, will allow the animal to enter the human food chain. What happens if the horse changes ownership? The horse with the first type of passport, which cannot possibly go to the slaughterhouse, might be dumped or let loose because the alternatives, such as incineration, can be expensive. The situation could be even worse. As one respondent to my trawling exercise said:

    "There is therefore a real danger of an illegal live export trade developing."

We do not want that to happen.

There is much evidence that animal welfare will suffer. The Shetland Pony Society told me that many people will

    "just abandon the ponies rather than face the passport cost or a possible fine. The welfare implications of this are horrendous."

What about horses that need certain medicines, but whose owners are worried about their being entered on to the passport towards the end of those horses' lives? As the British Driving Society puts it:

    "This could result in sick animals being destroyed because they cannot receive live-saving medication and elderly, retired horses denied medicines which . . . ensure them a comfortable old age."

How will the new bureaucracy work? What steps have the Government taken to consult local authorities? After all, they will be policing the new power. Are we really going to have another new group of snoopers and inspectors? Finally, will the compulsory system be implemented fairly? The ABRS has said that it is inequitable because

    "the only individuals who will be inspected on a regular basis are the licensed riding schools."

They will be pursued by the councils.

Some groups that back passports would support them only if the Minister agreed to go even further. The National Equine Welfare Council supports the policy only if it is

    "linked to some form of permanent identification such as micro-chipping or freeze marking."

The International League for the Protection of Horses agrees. It concludes:

    "Otherwise the cost and effort to both Government and charities is probably not worth while from a horse welfare point of view."

Mr. Soames rose—

Mr. Cameron: I shall not give way, as I believe that I am running a little short of time.

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In conclusion, I ask the Minister to set all those drawbacks and disadvantages against the perceived benefits and ask himself whether the case is made for a compulsory system. What is the mischief? What is the problem that we are trying to overcome? In this country, there is not really a problem, because we do not eat horses, so why the extra cost? I end where I began—with a plea about bureaucracy, regulation and this Government. My heart sank the other day when I read that the Government now have a Minister for the horse—it is probably this Minister—and even an official for the horse. Indeed, I can see three of them sitting in the loose boxes. The press release announcing those appointments said:

    "We will be discussing with representatives of the industry how best to ensure that the horse plays its full part in our efforts to strengthen the rural economy."

I would say to the Minister that, frankly, the horse is doing fine without him, so please do not start regulating, bureaucratising and strangling the creature. We in this country have a vibrant economy of stables, schools, breeders, businesses and ventures. Let them thrive. We now have half as many DEFRA officials as farmers. As regulation rises, the prospects for farmers fall, so please do not go there. I ask the Minister: please, think again.

8.30 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael): I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on obtaining this debate and providing the opportunity to illuminate the issue of horse passports. I cannot congratulate him quite so enthusiastically on the way in which he opened the debate; he appeared to be trying to audition for the role of pantomime dame, with a sort of childish chorus around him lead by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). That is the sort of jocular attempt to ridicule anything that is being done that one occasionally expects from the Europhobes on the Opposition Benches. I was particularly surprised about the criticism of the British Horse Society.

Mr. Cameron: I hope that the amount of time that I spent listening to people involved in the industry was obvious from the amount of material that I cited, and all I ask of the Minister—he probably cannot answer all my questions now—is that he take the issue seriously, because it will affect a lot of our constituents. I did not make any jocular reference, and I hope that he will not do so. Let us just get on with the issue.

Alun Michael: I was referring to the hon. Gentleman's manner; he did not sound very serious.

Mr. Soames: Nonsense.

Alun Michael: I am sorry but the hon. Member for Witney should expect criticism if he introduces a debate as he did.

The hon. Gentleman also criticised the fact that we now have a Minister for the horse and an official for the horse. The first Minister for the horse was Lord Donoughue, who has always been passionate about the place of the horse in British society, and it was a good initiative. However, when I took over the responsibility

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on becoming a DEFRA Minister, I found that ministerial enthusiasm was not matched by official back-up in the Department. I felt that it was important that officials should have the expertise needed to work with the industry.

The hon. Gentleman sought to ridicule that initiative, but it was strongly welcomed by organisations such as the British Horse Society, the British Equine Federation and many others, because they realised that the Government are seeking to work with the industry to try to ensure that the possible contribution to British society and the rural economy is developed.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned something that I suggest needs a lot of careful thought: he said that some of the organisations that have spoken to him have proposed using microchips, rather than the passport option. The problem is that we have to meet the requirements of the European legislation, which is very specific on the nature of the passport. There is something in the microchip option, and I have some sympathy with those in the industry who have pointed in that direction. Of course, there are parts of the industry that use that technique without its being compulsory in any way, but we have to meet the requirements.

A full consultation exercise on introducing horse passports was carried out in the summer of 2000. The main objective of the legislation is to provide assurance across Europe that horses that have been administered with medicines that have not been authorised for use in food-producing animals cannot be slaughtered for human consumption. A degree of certainty was being sought in introducing that legislation.

In deciding how to implement the measure, the Government listened to the concerns of the equine industry and acted accordingly. Full implementation of the new legislation—whereby all horses are required to have a passport, not just those entering the human food chain—received the support of the majority of those in the equine industry, who view it not only as a safety measure to prevent horses administered with prohibited medicines from entering the food chain, but as a way of improving the breeding and welfare of horses.

The Government therefore announced on 14 February 2002 that all horses will have to have a passport to bring the UK in line with European legislation. We set an implementation date of 31 December 2003. Part of the reason for doing that was to give the industry full opportunity to plan and prepare for that implementation date. I emphasise the fact that the UK must comply with the legislation. This is a case not of regulation being imposed on the industry, but of the Government listening to the industry on how EU legislation should be implemented in this country.

The Government agreed with the industry's wishes that passports should continue to be issued by the various private sector organisations, particularly the breed societies that have been issuing horse passports for years.

Mr. Gray: Absolutely scandalous.

Alun Michael: It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman, who is occupying the Opposition Front

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Bench, listened to what is being said instead of muttering in the way that he does. He has already intervened with a declaration of interest—

Mr. Gray rose—

Alun Michael: No. This is Back Benchers' time and I am responding to a debate introduced by a Back Bencher.

Mr. Gray: Nonsense.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We should conduct the debate in a slightly more civilised way.

Alun Michael: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The advent of passports for all horses will create a level playing field, because all horses, not just pedigrees as at present, will have to have a passport. That will remove the perceived discrimination against registering pedigree horses. The loss of important blood lines will be threatened if those horses are not registered.

Mr. Soames: Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael: No. With regard to the cost of a passport, 56 organisations and associations are approved to issue horse passports, which are valid for the lifetime of the horse. With all horses requiring a passport, we believe that the average cost will come down to between #20 and #30. However, we understand that some organisations or associations may offer an even lower price for passports for horses owned by riding schools and charities.

The legislation will be enforced, as is normal for animal health legislation, by the local authorities. Passports will be required before a horse is sold, which will also help enforcement of the measure. For horses going to be slaughtered for human and pet consumption, enforcement at the slaughterhouse will be the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency. I am pleased that a large part of the equine industry supports the need for a passport for all equines.

In addition, since the announcement on 14 February last year, we have continued to listen to the concerns of particular sections of the industry, such as areas with semi-feral breeds, such as Dartmoor and the New Forest. I have met representatives of those concerned with the situation, and I am considering the case for special rules to apply in such areas. The issue is not simple and straightforward, which is why I have met people personally and ensured that there are meetings with my officials in order for their concerns to be taken on board.

I am aware that, more recently, concern has been raised about how the introduction of passports will impact on abattoirs that slaughter horses for human and pet consumption. We are considering whether and how it might be possible to minimise that impact. That is a serious point. We hope to send the draft legislation out to the industry for comment very shortly.

I am pleased that the Government are working with the industry to consider the BEF's proposals for a central horse database to be established on information

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supplied by the passport-issuing societies. The industry is very much in favour of that, and I met representatives personally to explore those possibilities at an early stage in introducing the legislation.

The database is a unique example of collaboration between the equine industry and the Government. The database will help the Government, because, for the first time, there will be information on the location of horses that could be crucial in a horse disease outbreak. That would provide more knowledge of the size of the horse population in the country—

Mr. Soames: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Alun Michael: I am not sure of the normal conventions of an Adjournment debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that I was responding to the hon. Member for Witney, who introduced the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: For the Minister's clarity, may I say that it is entirely up to him to decide whether to give way to interventions, in the normal way.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to you for that clarification, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of that, I give way to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex.

Mr. Soames: Will the Minister tell me what horse disease he has in mind that could possibly require the issuing of passports to every horse and pony in the land?

Alun Michael: I said no such thing.

Mr. Soames: Yes you did.

Alun Michael: No, I did not say any such thing. I said that the information made available though the passport system would be fed into a database, which would be of advantage both to the horse industry and in the event of horse diseases becoming a problem in this country. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that frequently diseases and problems that have not been anticipated arise in fairly short order.

Mr. Cameron: Given that there are clearly unanswered questions—the Minister cannot answer the question about what disease might arise—and given that I have made clear the number of bodies that are

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unhappy with the decision and do not feel that they were listened to, would it not be a good idea if the Select Committee were to consider the matter, to call some evidence and to have another go at examining the issue, before we produce an enormous bureaucracy that affects so many people in the country? I ask the Minister to think about it before coming back so quickly.

Alun Michael: The horse industry sought certainty about what would happen and within what time scale. We provided both certainty and a generous time scale—information on the way in which implementation of the European directive would be pursued has been available for more than a year—so that the industry would know where it stood and could make plans and organise. That is true of the passport-issuing authorities, of which there are more than 50, which provide the service for their memberships and for wider horse ownership. Some have been examining the potential impact on organisations and horse owners that have not until now been tied into one of the existing passport systems. As I said, the database is not a part of the implementation of the passport scheme—it is a bonus. In parallel to implementation, we are trying to work with the industry to achieve a measure that is of benefit to the industry.

Conservative Members do not appreciate it, but it is a fact that Ministers get up each day and try to make the lives of our constituents better and to work with industries, such as, in this case, the horse industry—[Interruption.] I appreciate that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, who keeps—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seventeen minutes to Nine o'clock.