7. What steps he is taking to improve the horse passport system. (155340)
The Government remain committed to strengthening the horse passport system. I met members of the Equine Sector Council for Health and Welfare’s strategy steering committee to discuss this and other issues on 21 February. My noble Friend Lord de Mauley will be meeting them again next week to discuss these matters further.
A single horse passport-issuing organisation could improve traceability and bring greater rigour to the system. What transitional arrangements is my right hon. Friend planning for the more than 1 million horses in this country that already have passports and that are far more likely to end up at slaughterhouses than next year’s foals?
My hon. Friend speaks with real authority on this matter, having been chief executive of the National Pony Society before entering the House. That is one of the 75 bodies that issues horse passports. She makes the very sensible point that more than 1 million passports have already been issued. We are working with the European Commission, which has sensibly suggested that we move to a single database, and we will obviously work closely with the passport-issuing organisations as we work out the transition to the new system.
On the question of having a single process across Europe for dealing with horse passport fraud, does the Secretary of State believe that it would be harder or easier to tackle such fraud if we left the European Union?
We are discussing this matter immediately with the European Commission, which has put forward the sensible proposal that member states should have a central database. The issue might be subject to renegotiation at a later stage, at which point I would love to hear the hon. Gentleman’s opinion on whether he would push his party leader to back us in giving the British people a choice on the renegotiated settlement.
Everybody agrees that there must be reform and improvement of the horse passporting system, but under the current system there is a derogation for native breeds such as Welsh mountain ponies and Exmoor ponies. Without that derogation, it would become almost financially impossible for people to continue to keep those breeds. Will the Secretary of State consider keeping the derogation so that we can continue to see those wonderful ponies on our wild hills and mountains?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He is right to say that a number of breeds are currently excluded. We will have to work this out as we discuss the new system, but I also hope that he will see the merits of having a centralised database, which we will work through with the passport-issuing authorities.
Bore da i chi, Mr Speaker—good morning to you.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has become infamous for U-turns, but now our Eurosceptic Secretary of State has been forced into making an embarrassing EU-turn as a result of the horsemeat scandal. He scrapped the national equine database last year, right in the middle of a tendering process, to save £200,000. Now the European Commission has told him to re-establish a central equine database. How much will it cost to set it up again?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We called a meeting with senior members of the equine sector before we had discussions with the Commission, and we all agreed that the system we inherited from his Government is a mess and badly needs to be improved. He exaggerates the importance of the national equine database as he left it, because it did not contain food chain information. We will work closely with the industry. We have seen success with the dog industry contributing to the microchipping programme, and we will work with the equine industry to see how it can help to build the new database.
Is there any scope in these proposals to help to combat the growing problem of fly grazing? Farmers and landowners in my constituency are intimidated by Gypsy and Traveller groups who let their horses graze on their land, when the only route open to them is civil prosecution.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I discussed with senior representatives of the horse industry at the Royal Windsor horse show on Saturday. There is a real problem with fly grazing, but we are taking measures forward in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill which I hope will lead to a reduction of the problem.