It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson. I am delighted to have secured a debate this afternoon on an issue of great concern to many of my constituents. The problem of illegally tethered horses, however, is not restricted to York or the wider Yorkshire region but is found throughout the country, predominantly although not exclusively in rural areas.
To some, the problem of illegally tethered horses might seem mundane, but try telling that to the farmer whose crops are being destroyed, to the innocent car driver whose life is endangered by an escaped horse or to the property owner whose land is taken over by tethered horses. At the core of the issue is a simple but profound point of principle: that no one should be above the law. Nor should people have their lives negatively affected by those who have little regard for such laws.
Unfortunately, the illegal tethering of horses is seen as an acceptable and traditional activity among much of the Traveller community. In the vast majority of cases, illegally tethered horses belong to Traveller families or communities who seem to have little respect for the safety or property of others when tethering their animals wherever they like. As the Member of Parliament for York Outer, I have witnessed an increased build-up of horses on the verges of dangerous roads, and I am sure that other Members present have their own examples, which they might bring to bear.
To touch on some examples from my constituency, back in 2009 a local resident in York was driving along the A64 when an illegally tethered horse broke free and collided with her car. The resident suffered a broken wrist and could not work for nine weeks. The horse, sadly, suffered fatal injuries in the accident. York’s The Press, my local paper, quoted the resident involved:
“Had my partner…and I not been in a 4x4 hire car, we would have died instantly...I was off work for nine weeks but the psychological effects lasted much longer and also, what pain must that horse have been in?...They should be removed”.
The wider context of animal welfare is also involved.
Another case highlights the real risk to life faced by innocent bystanders when horses escape from their illegally tethered locations. On 29 March this year, a 39-year-old man was driving on the A166 near York when a horse strayed on to the road and collided with his transit van. Again, the police suggested that, had the gentleman been driving a small car, he would have been killed. To give an idea of the frequency of such incidents, only one day earlier another collision took place, this time on Malton road. Injuries were incurred by the innocent motorist and, once again, the horse suffered fatal injuries. Today I was told that only this weekend, on Sunday, the police were called out to deal with loose horses on Fulford road.
While the case studies of horses tethered on the roadside might involve the most life-threatening incidents, it would be a mistake, as I mentioned, to limit today’s debate to horses on the roadside. Another local case from my postbag highlights the vast damage that illegally tethered horses can cause for farmers. My constituent Mr David Shaw owns land in Osbaldwick, within sight of a Traveller site there. Mr Shaw’s land has been taken over by illegally tethered horses, which have caused a great deal of damage to fences, crops and the land itself.
Likewise, another constituent, who wishes to remain anonymous, frequently encounters horses tethered on local private property, again causing damage and problems. To quote from a recent e-mail to me:
“We live on the outskirts of York and have encountered persistent problems with tethered horses for over 15 years”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important issue. May I make him aware that this is not only a problem in rural areas? In the north-east, more and more horses are being tethered on our green spaces in urban areas. In many cases, the horses, too, are illegal. Only a couple of weeks ago, I attended a horse-chipping event organised by the British Horse Society, which was at least trying to bring such horses into legal ownership while still illegally tethered.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and, as I said at the beginning, although the problem might seem to be suffered predominantly by rural areas, they are not alone, because I know for certain that urban areas throughout the country suffer as well. He is absolutely right about the chipping of horses, which I will go on to discuss, because I want to direct a few questions at the Minister.
The hon. Gentleman has talked a lot about illegally tethered horses. Will he also discuss the problem of fly-grazing? In my constituency, and stretching the length of south Wales, we have had tremendous problems with vans appearing, often late at night, and being opened to dump horses in a farmer’s field. The horses are left there, sometimes for days, with many needing medical attention. The local authorities incur huge costs for vets’ bills, passporting and, ultimately, removing and selling the horses, and any sale does not bring in the money spent by the local authority on removing and looking after them.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about fly-grazing. The problem in my patch is more to do with tethered horses, although I know of local farmers who have suffered from fly-grazing. Overnight, on crops of cereals, horses can suddenly appear and be there for a number of days; it is difficult for the farmers to round up the horses or disperse them. In my constituency, the problem tends to be on areas that are not properly fenced, but I know of other farmers in other areas who have had their fences cut in the middle of night and horses let in, so that the crops are grazed and irreparably damaged beyond the cost of replacing them. She is also right to mention animal welfare, because a lot of the animals that appear on fly-grazing sites suffer from welfare issues, which need to be picked up properly; but that cost does sometimes fall on the local authority.
The responsibility for the horse, once it is illegally placed on someone’s land, rests with the landowner unless the local authority helps and supports some of the cost. That financial cost—not to the perpetrator but to the poor victim—is an issue that really needs to be addressed.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady, who makes a valid point. As I develop the argument, I will proceed to the problem of the landowners bearing the brunt of the cost.
To return to the example of the farmer in my constituency who suffered irreparable damage to hedges and crops, his e-mail continued: “Two elderly farmers” have been intimidated
“by the owners of the tethered horses. These farmers live in fear of those people responsible for the horses and feel they cannot approach them.”
I hope that all Members agree that, whether the illegal tethering of horses is on the roadside, the village green or someone’s private land, it not only causes practical problems and disturbances for local residents but also represents a complete and utter lack of respect for the law and the wider community. Frankly, how some people have the nerve to take over someone else’s land without permission is beyond me. On a simple point of principle, that is fundamentally wrong.
Thus far, of course, I have frequently referred to the law, which it might be helpful to clarify for the purposes of this afternoon’s debate. The law on illegally tethered horses is currently contained in the Animals Act 197l, which gives power to landowners to detain stray livestock, including horses, and to recover expenses incurred when doing so. Similarly, on the specific concern about horses tethered on roadside verges, I am grateful to the Department for Transport for confirming that under section 155—
“Penalties in connection with straying animals”—
the Highways Act 1980 states:
“If any horses, cattle, sheep, goats or swine are at any time found straying or lying on or at the side of a highway their keeper is guilty of an offence”
unless it is
“part of a highway passing over any common, waste or unenclosed ground.”
My reason for outlining the relevant legislation so clearly is to highlight that reasonably clear and robust national legislation exists. In essence, the law is easy to understand. It states unequivocally that the tethering of horses on the highway or private property is a crime, and therefore punishable. The question that lingers is why so little action is taken when such offences are committed. The law exists, but sadly the will to enforce it is lacking. That is particularly the case with the Horse Passport Regulations 2009, which make it an offence for horse owners not to apply for a passport within six months of an animal’s birth.
In response to a written question in November 2011, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs confirmed that a mere six owners had faced prosecution as a result of not complying with that law. Yet, unsurprisingly, many of the horses involved in collisions with cars seem to be unregistered with DEFRA, thus making it all the more difficult to trace and track their owners. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined how his Department seeks to ensure full compliance with the law, and whether there is a specific plan to deal with horses owned by the Traveller communities to ensure that they are registered under the passport scheme, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) also referred.
I return to the problem of enforcement. In response to my parliamentary representations on the matter, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), made it clear in a letter that enforcement responsibility lies with local authorities, and stated:
“The local authority could, therefore, detain stray horses found on any local authority owned land”.
On private land, initial responsibility lies with the landowner to request that straying animals be removed, and if that approach fails, the police can be called. However, as we all know and as has been mentioned, the time and cost of the court battles and legal action that often follow falls on the landowner. Nevertheless, it is clear that enforcement responsibility lies with the local agencies of the police and the council.
Having clarified who is responsible, I must raise the issue of my own local authority, City of York council. The council has clearly failed to act decisively on tethered horses. I have long called for the council simply to confiscate any illegally tethered horses and to return them only when the owners have accepted responsibility, faced a fine, and registered the horse in accordance with law. The fines levied would cover the cost of looking after the animals, and the action could be carried out in conjunction with the RSPCA.
To my mind, that is a pretty fair-sounding and simple plan of action. If someone illegally parked their car, the same action would be taken. Yet, a response sent to me by City of York council in June informed me:
“The Council does not have the facilities to remove or stable horses and is therefore not able to remove horses from private land. However, the support workers who visit the”
“site each week continue to work to educate travellers about…caring for their horses. This includes working closely with travellers to try and prevent horses being grazed inappropriately on private land or in places where they can stray onto the road.”
My hon. Friend is touching on an important point about impounding facilities, and he mentioned cars. Local authorities usually have well-organised dog pounds. Does he believe that local authorities should be required to have facilities, or to buy facilities to be used to impound horses?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I agree with him. That must be the way forward if we are to solve the problem logically and fairly for everyone, and at the same time keep the welfare of the animals in mind. I would like local authorities to look at the matter.
The hon. Gentleman may find it interesting to know that throughout the length of south Wales we have found that it pays the Traveller community to abandon their horses. When they have done so, the local authority takes the horses into care and pays for veterinary bills and passporting, and then tries to sell them because no owner can be found. The horses may be sold for £200, but the veterinary bills and impounding may have cost £15,000. The matter is much more complicated than simply impounding a horse for the owner to recover. The owner waits until a horse is sold, and then buys it back really cheaply.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I understand that there are complex arguments in the process, as I will explain. The problem also varies in different regions. In and around York and Yorkshire, the tethered horses seem to be valuable assets to the Traveller community. Whenever bailiffs have been used—there is a bailiff company operating around the country that gives 24-hour notice on a certain site where horses have been illegally put—they remove the horses and store them on a site at a cost to the private landowner, and almost always the fines have been paid and the horses have been returned because the Traveller community see those horses as a valuable asset and want them back. The situation may be different in other areas, and it will depend on different communities, so I understand that the position will vary from region to region.
Will my hon. Friend expand on where the market is for those horses? I am at a loss to know what they are used for. They do not look like horses that can be ridden. Does he have any evidence for what happens to them, where the trade is in them, and what the market is for them? That information would be useful.
Thank you, Mr Robertson. I will take no more interventions.
If I am brutally honest, I do not know the answer to my hon. Friend’s questions. He made a good point, and we should investigate it. Again, the answer will vary from region to region, but it is a valid point that needs investigating.
Let me make it clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for minority and diverse groups and nationalities in our country. Such diversity is what makes this country so great. I would never seek to diminish or insult the traditions of Travellers or their way of life. However, it is outrageous for any section of a society, regardless of the sensitivities involved, regularly to disobey and breach the general law.
As I have outlined in the case studies mentioned earlier, such callous disregard is not only unfair but dangerous. City of York council is simply not willing to enforce the current law in relation to illegally tethered horses. As I said a moment ago, it is merely willing to try to prevent such instances. I am afraid that this is another sorry example of the silent, law-abiding majority being ignored and disregarded while we pander to those who take advantage of politically correct nonsense.
Interestingly, in response to inquiries by a local councillor, Mark Walters, a City of York council solicitor admitted that lack of council action on the matter could lead to the authority being liable both for negligence and for a breach of statutory duty. Therefore, I have a number of questions for the Minister, which I hope he will be able to respond to. First, will he join me in demanding that local authorities apply the laws and rules of this land fairly and equally to all parts of society? Secondly, does he agree with my proposal that, wherever possible, illegally tethered horses should be confiscated by local agencies and returned only after action has been taken against the irresponsible owners?
Thirdly, will the Minister outline the work undertaken by DEFRA to monitor the issue of illegally tethered horses, and say how the Department is working with local authorities to tackle the matter effectively? Finally, does he have any words of encouragement for those farmers and landowners whose lives are being affected by long, drawn-out battles to evict Travellers’ horses, or indeed communities that may have set up illegal activities on their land?
In conclusion, the issue of illegally tethered horses affects a great number of people in a great number of ways. In every case, however, an innocent, law-abiding person is either endangered or taken advantage of. This issue is a cause of deep anger and frustration for many individuals up and down the country who want to see robust action taken. I hope that the Government will encourage such robust action, and that the law in this area will be implemented—as it should be—fairly and universally.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate, and on the enormous amount of work that he has done in understanding the problem and its impact locally. He is right to raise the issue with the House today.
The practice of dumping horses on another person’s land, whether public verge or a farmer’s private property, is abhorrent. If horses are dumped—or fly grazed, as the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said—or tethered in a way that fails to account for their needs, significant animal welfare issues arise. In the most serious cases, the owner can be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and if convicted can be fined up to £20,000 and sent to prison for up to six months. That, of course, presupposes that we find and identify the owner of the horse, and I will come on to talk about that problem in response to points raised by my hon. Friend.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that the number of horses in its care has doubled over the past 12 months—it currently looks after more than 600 horses. I congratulate the work of all animal and horse welfare organisations such as the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare and Redwings horse sanctuary. They often find themselves in the front line, picking up the tab and dealing with the issues that arise when a horse is dumped.
Horses are often dumped in places that are clearly visible to the public. Welfare organisations often receive numerous phone calls, and they then have to visit the horse, assess the situation, contact the owner—if that is possible—and explain the legal position. On the Redwings website I found detailed and helpful guidance about what a landowner needs to do if a horse is dumped on their land, which includes the requirement to notify the police at an early stage.
The public assume that charities can simply take the horse, but that is not the case. Unfortunately, in reality the owner of a horse often has a legal right to its return, particularly if there are no significant welfare issues. In some cases it is difficult to identify the horse and its owner, which delays a landowner’s ability to move the horse off their land. Biosecurity can be threatened—that is a major issue in the farming community—and farmers risk losing payments where stewardship land is involved. I understand, however, that Natural England will look carefully at the circumstances of each case that has a stewardship agreement, and I have yet to hear reports of where a flexible approach has not been taken under such circumstances. I am fully aware of the problems caused to farmers, and it is unacceptable that they often need to use their own money to clear up the mess left by others who, as has been said, sometimes threaten and intimidate them.
My hon. Friend asked what DEFRA, and others, are doing about this issue, but there is no simple solution to the problem. On the rare occasions when the owner of a dumped horse can be identified, a relatively simple way forward can be found. In the main, however, that is not the case, which in part has been caused by a reduction in the value of a particular type of horse.
As my hon. Friend said, powers contained in the Animals Act 1971 can be used by any landowner—including local authorities—if animals, including horses, are allowed to stray on to their land. That includes the power to detain straying livestock on private land, and it provides powers for individual landowners to take ownership of the animals. The Highways Act 1980 also allows action to be taken, including the recovery of costs when livestock stray on to the highway. Once again, however, we have the problem of how to recover costs from the owner of an animal if they cannot be identified.
I record again my gratitude for the work of welfare groups in this area. The RSPCA and Redwings work together in troublesome areas to raise management and welfare standards, and they have done extraordinary work. Work undertaken by the National Equine Welfare Council to co-ordinate such initiatives at national and local level has made significant achievements. The work done by the RSPCA with Travellers at the Appleby horse fair is another example of the progress being made.
Absolutely, and I was coming on to mention other organisations that are doing wonderful work. Rather than the Government creating a requirement on local authorities to have adequate stabling and consider matters of cost—we create many such requirements across the piece—problems of this nature tend to exist in particular localities. During my seven years in the House, I cannot recall receiving a letter on this issue from a single farmer or landowner. Quite a few Travelling communities live in or pass through my constituency, but there are other places—some represented by colleagues present in this debate—where this is a hot-spot issue. Under such circumstances, I wish to ensure that all Government agencies, including my Department but chiefly local authorities and organisations such as those I have listed, work together to focus on the issues involved.
Fly-grazing is a huge issue in my constituency, and I met one of the Minister’s colleagues to discuss it. It would be useful for the Minister’s Department to remind local authorities that they have obligations. One Traveller site in my constituency is controlled by the local authority. No animals are supposed to be on that site, but when it was visited a couple of weeks ago, horses were found tethered inside the camp. If local authorities have obligations, surely we should remind them to meet them.
I know that my hon. Friend speaks regularly with his local authority, and I suspect that it will have a Traveller liaison or welfare officer, or dedicated staff who should be conveying their concerns on issues of animal welfare to the people involved. I assure him that our Department takes animal welfare extremely seriously; we talk regularly with the Local Government Association and I will happily raise his point to ensure coherence across local authorities, and the development of best practice.
One point is that responsible owners will have their horses passported. We are talking mostly about irresponsible owners who do not passport their horses, and it is therefore difficult to track ownership. In the Republic of Ireland, there is a requirement not only to passport a horse but to say where it will be lodged, and that gives people the capacity to track it. We have several passporting schemes, none of which are connected, and therefore it is difficult to track those passports.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, and I will take it back to my colleague, the Minister of State who has particular responsibility for these issues, to see whether we can amend the horse passporting regime in the way she suggests.
I welcome the work done by the National Farmers Union task and finish group to gauge the scale of the problem, ascertain the best remedies under existing law, and identify where amendments to the law would enable the problem to be dealt with more effectively. Many dumped horses, however, are traded by people who tend to operate outside the law, so finding effective remedies will not be easy.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer that I will seek more information about initiatives from around the country, and consider whether there is a role for central Government to improve, facilitate and evaluate those schemes to ensure that we understand the benefits of best practice. The aim would be to enable councils and other landowners to take better control of the situation. I also assure my hon. Friend that DEFRA Ministers will, together with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office, consider how we can secure a more joined-up approach to this matter across Whitehall.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).