Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to see that so many hon. Members, including the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), have come to debate this important issue.
In September, in Alton in my constituency, 46 horses were left in a field off the New Odiham road. On that occasion, they had been left with permission, but their owner had not arranged for them to be fed regularly and their welfare deteriorated to the extent that they were taken by the police under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and given over to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
A couple of weeks later, in the same field, another 18 horses appeared, belonging, apparently, to the same owner. If I quote briefly from the Redwings charity, which subsequently cared for a small number of the horses, that will give an indication of the extent of the cruelty imposed on them; I know that I must not quote at length, Mr Hollobone. I should explain that Redwings named the horses after characters from Jane Austen novels, as they were rescued from Alton in my constituency. Redwings said:
“We very tragically lost Georgiana, only two weeks after her rescue. Georgiana was suffering with salmonella - which several of these horses have - and also an horrendous small redworm burden.
Mr. Darcy is also an orphan foal and must have lost his mother at Alton. He was so hungry that he had actually been chewing the tails of the other horses in the group.”
I know that this issue and similar ones have been raised before by, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) and for Dudley South (Chris Kelly). Many hon. Members will recognise this kind of case, where horses are on farmers’ fields, local authority land, grass verges or common land.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he recall the absolutely appalling case of Spindles farm in my constituency? In January 2008, the police and the RSPCA finally gained access to the farm and found the most unrepeatable cruelties being perpetrated on horses and donkeys. If he does remember the case, will he acknowledge the great work that the RSPCA did in obtaining a conviction against James Gray—a life ban on keeping horses and a 26-week sentence of imprisonment, which was richly deserved?
Absolutely. My right hon. Friend brings up one of the most terrible cases. I think that 2008, when the horses were seized in Amersham, was a high point for RSPCA horse seizures, and I pay tribute to the organisation’s work. I should also say that it has been of great assistance to me as I have prepared for this debate.
There are four senses in which the practice of fly-grazing is a terrible problem. First, of course, there is often the terrible condition of the horses themselves, which suffer neglect and malnutrition. Secondly, when a farmer’s field is being grazed on, it is also a problem for the farmers. Grazing, where it is not authorised, is theft; it is theft of a farmer’s livelihood. Quite often, of course, the farmer is left to deal with the problem. Although they are the victim and not the perpetrator of the crime, they assume some responsibility for the horses. Thirdly, fly-grazing is a burden for those who must enforce the law, and for the charities that care for the horses. Currently, those charities find themselves significantly over-burdened as a result. Finally, fly-grazing is a great problem for the public—there are issues of public safety if, for example, horses get on to the public highway.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the great problems is the traceability of these ponies and horses? We must ensure that we know where they are. We have 70 or 80 passport-issuing agencies; there is no central database. We need to know where the horses are and who they belong to if we are to take action to stop fly-grazing and the welfare problems.
My hon. Friend rightly raises one of the significant underlying issues, and it is one that I will return to later.
There are three key pieces of legislation in this arena. First, there is the Animal Welfare Act 2006. However, that applies only where there is significant suffering; I am told that quite a “high-hurdle” test must be passed for it to be used. Secondly, there is the Highways Act 1980, which relates to cases in which animals are on or by the public highway. Thirdly, there is the Animals Act 1971, which is a means of getting horses off private land, although the process involved is quite onerous; I will discuss that process later. Significantly, there are also a number of private Acts that apply in different parts of the country, including the Mid Glamorgan County Council Act 1987 and, in my own area, the Hampshire County Council Act 1972.
What is the process if a farmer discovers that, say, a dozen horses have appeared on their land? They should call the local authority, which may check the horses. In doing so, it often finds that there is no microchip to allow traceability. The local authority then puts up a notice to say, “Contact us if these horses are yours.” The owner then has two weeks to come forward. Then, just before the two weeks are up, the horses miraculously disappear; hon. Members will be familiar with the situation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on calling for and securing this important debate. Does he have experience of an issue that I have in my constituency? Once horse bailiffs seize horses, or council employees are involved in bringing in horse bailiffs, people are then intimidated by the owners of the horses—the owners who have neglected them and left them in such a sorry state.
It is indeed a recurring problem. I know that the presence of uniformed police on these occasions often helps, but people worry about intimidation a great deal.
If the horses do not miraculously disappear just before the two-week period is up and no one comes forward to claim them, the only option for the local authority is to auction them—but, of course, if a horse is to be put up for auction it must first be properly documented and microchipped. There is another situation that I think hon. Members will recognise. The horses go to auction but are often bought back by the same person who was responsible for abandoning them in the first place. Afterwards, of course, they have acquired a more valuable animal, because it has been microchipped at a low price.
The scale of the problem of fly-grazing is both large and growing. No one knows exactly even how many horses there are in the country, let alone how many are neglected, abandoned or fly-grazed.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I assure him that concern about this issue is not confined to rural areas; I have been struck by the number of my constituents who have contacted me about it.
Is not the need for a national strategy underlined by the fact that a piecemeal postcode lottery approach will ensure, in the end, that those who abuse animals in this way simply move them from the areas that are taking action to the areas that are not prepared to take action—a problem exacerbated by the action being taken in Wales? Does not every area need to be prepared to deal with the problem?
Indeed. I think that is one of the themes that we will hear a number of times during this short debate.
Best estimates suggest that perhaps 7,000 horses are at risk of welfare problems, with upwards of 3,000 on land without consent. In the year to date in my own county of Hampshire, the RSPCA has received calls about 14 incidents of fly-grazing; in the first quarter of 2013, the British Horse Society saw complaints about horse welfare go up by 50% on the prior year.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), I have had many letters from constituents about this issue. However, I want to clarify one thing with the Minister. Is it the case that racehorses are not in this situation because of the fact that they are microchipped as a matter of course, so they do not become part of the problem?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. My wife keeps horses and recently rehomed two from animal charities that receive abandoned horses. Might not part of the solution be for the horse-owning public with capacity for extra horses to receive and rehome abandoned horses rather than breeding their own?
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Members will be pleased to know that I intend to accelerate my speech somewhat, because I know that several people want to speak.
As I was saying before the interruption, the problem is large and growing. Ten years ago, the RSPCA had 100 horses in its care; that figure now stands at 850, and the charity has to spend £3.5 million a year on food, board and care. The number of horses taken in has increased hugely since the peak year that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) referred to earlier. Prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 have also risen. The debate is so important now, however, because of the risk that the problem will become much greater in England in 2014 following the enactment of the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill that is going through the Welsh Assembly.
It is my understanding that the circumstances are no different in England and Scotland, whereas Wales has that new legislation. It is necessary to put on the record that Scotland should also consider changing the law to prevent the same situation from arising.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. In response to the awful problem of fly-grazing and the intimidation of farmers in areas such as mine, the Welsh Government have introduced the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill in an attempt to get consistency right across the country and to give local authorities sweeping powers to deal with the horses immediately, rather than having to wait. Will the hon. Gentleman be seeking similar legislation for England?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The Welsh Bill will not make the problem disappear, but it will make dealing with it somewhat easier, which may help to disrupt and discourage sharp practice. The worry, however, is that it may also displace the problem across the border. As I understand it, the Bill cuts the waiting time from 14 days to seven; reverses the burden of proof, so that an owner coming forward must actively prove that they own the horses; and, crucially, increases the options available to those who seize horses. Auction is therefore not the only option. Horses can also be rehomed, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards)outlined earlier, or—when necessary in the worst cases, and with sadness—euthanised.
As I said, the Welsh Bill will not make the problem disappear and it is worth reflecting on its root causes. The main reasons seem to be a relatively small number of irresponsible dealers and the excessive breeding of horses. There is an over-supply, with horses changing hands at auction for as little as £5. Following the horsemeat scandal, there is also less abattoir capacity, although given the cost of put-down and disposal, that option is, arguably, unlikely to be high on the list for owners of £5 horses.
All that explains to some extent why horses are abandoned, but it does not explain why dealers come to pick them up again or why they would buy them back at auction. To some extent, dealers perhaps believe that the market will bounce back and that the value of horses will rise again. It also seems that some sections of some communities attach status to the volume ownership of horses.
What, realistically, can be done? Eventually, we need to rebalance the supply of, and demand for, horses. It has been suggested that if there were a market in horsemeat, animals would be better cared for, and there is a great deal of logic in that. However, there is a cultural issue about that in this country, and there is no likelihood any time soon of there being a great appetite for horsemeat.
I do not have the answer, but I suggest to the Minister that we need to find ways to ban irresponsible people who should not own horses from doing so. That is made more difficult because such people may not own the horses directly, but through proxies.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important subject to the House. Historically, my constituency has had a huge population of horses, but we have seen an explosion in their numbers in the past year or two, with horses on almost every conceivable available blade of grass. However, we need to be careful in dealing with this issue, because there are some extremely good people in my constituency who have owned horses for generations. Just two days ago, the county council, which is leading the way in the country on this issue, lifted more than 20 horses in my constituency, and among them were foals and other horses whose owners had looked after them very well.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it is important not to generalise. Many people have owned horses for generations, and they do so responsibly.
I suggest to the Minister that our priority in the immediate term must be to disrupt irresponsible and cruel practice where it appears. Part of that may be about further propagating and encouraging partnership working, based on the best practice that exists in some parts of the country. The National Farmers Union points to south Wales and Durham as examples of places where there is good co-operative working between the police and local authorities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). Does my hon. Friend agree that the ultimate solution would be to amend the Animals Act 1971, strengthening this area of the law and empowering local authorities and the Government to address this issue? However, we must be careful not to transfer the burden immediately on to farmers.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will come to the legislative points in a moment.
I wonder whether further guidance on best practice would be useful for local authorities and police constabularies. There might also be innovative and different ways of utilising publicly owned land to keep seized horses.
I wonder whether I might, through the hon. Gentleman, implore the Minister to consider having discussions with his opposite number at the Ministry of Justice? There are prison farms on prison land, and prisoners at a few of them are given the duty of looking after horses as part of their outside work. There are two advantages to that: one is that the horses are cared for, and the other is that the prisoners take responsibility for caring for an animal. This is often the first time they have taken responsibility for caring for anything or anyone, and they develop new skills. That might be a slightly innovative way of looking at the issue.
I raised the question whether there might be different or innovative ways of using publicly owned land, and I am sure the Minister will have heard that suggestion.
Earlier, we talked about the challenge of traceability; large numbers of horses are not microchipped. Clearly, more enforcement is needed in that regard, and I ask the Minister whether he has any thoughts on how traceability can be better enforced, especially given that free microchipping is available to many people today but is not taken up.
It appears that the existence of a national equine database of some sort is important—it could, at least, make the current system work better. It might be possible to find a simpler, less costly version of the former national equine database to make traceability possible while minimising the attendant additional costs.
Most importantly, we need to make enforcement less onerous; that is the most critical immediate-term challenge, especially given the legislation across the border in Wales. We need to make the removal of horses more straightforward, and there are two, and possibly more, ways we might do that. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) outlined, we could amend the 1971 Act to bring it into line with the best of the private Acts.
Alternatively, we could replicate the legislation going through in Wales. Either way, there needs to be a way to reduce the waiting time, during which owners can claim ownership. In Wales, it has been reduced from 14 days to seven—although seven is not a magic number; we could have another number. Whether the holding period is seven days or whatever, we also need to stipulate that horses do not have to be held on the land they were found on and that they can be held on the enforcer’s land, which puts the onus on the owners to come forward.
Does my hon. Friend agree that problems are often exacerbated by travelling communities that allow their horses to go on land where they should not be? Plenty of travelling communities, however, do control their horses and ponies very effectively and graze them in the right places.
What advice would my hon. Friend give councils regarding better liaison with travelling communities? Will he also join me in paying tribute to two organisations that have been very busy in Norfolk? One is World Horse Welfare, at Snetterton, and the other is Redwings, at Hapton. They do an absolutely tireless job in helping to solve this problem by taking in many horses that should never have been abandoned.
I certainly join my hon. Friend in those commendations. I echo what he said, which in turn echoed what the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said, about the large numbers of people who look after their horses extremely well. It seems that these irresponsible practices are concentrated among a relatively small number of individuals. As to my hon. Friend’s point about giving advice to local authorities, I am sure the Minister will pick it up.
On objectives for a legislative solution, we somehow have to break the cycle of horses being seized, going to auction and being bought back, with the result that the problem never decreases. Whatever the legislative solution, there must be options for rehoming and, sadly, for euthanising, where that is unavoidable in the worst cases.
This is an important issue, and we should all thank my hon. Friend for raising it. On the things we can do apart from changing the law, does he agree that the RSPCA must make absolutely full use of its existing powers to prevent foals and horses from dying in winter floods, as happened in Sandhurst lane, in Gloucester, last winter? My overwhelming sense is that the RSPCA moved too slowly. Has my hon. Friend come across other instances where it could have done more within its existing powers? We should not necessarily expect the law to do everything.
I do not know the specifics of that case, so I cannot comment on how quickly things were or were not done. On fly-grazing, I do know that the RSPCA and other charities are heavily overburdened and struggle to cope with their case load, which may be part of the issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, not least because I hope it will raise public awareness. The public are really appalled at some of the welfare abuses that have taken place, but the strong message to them today is that they can be part of the solution by reporting cases. Quite often, welfare situations are exacerbated because of the time it takes for someone to identify where horses are and to report them. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I hope it will help get that message out.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She is right that such incidents must be reported and that the public play an important part in that. It is frustrating if offences are reported and there either is not the capacity to deal with them or proceedings are started but end up in a shocking circular process.
It strikes me that one practical thing we can do, which I have done myself, is to refer to the RSPCA those in the area who run stables, particularly for livery purposes, and who have gaps because of the expense of raising horses. Where people have taken their animals back into their own home paddocks, or whatever, and there are spaces, the best thing we can do is to ensure the RSPCA and its various centres are aware of where there are spaces at livery. It is often cheaper to keep a horse at livery than to do anything else. We should encourage people to identify the spaces in livery to ensure that they are used by the RSPCA, as is done very well in my area.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am sure the Minister will have heard that point.
To conclude, I know that the Minister is seized of the importance of the issue and its urgency. Given the growth in incidents and the imminence of the Welsh legislation, I hope that he will be able to give us some indication today of what can be done to assist hard-working charities, the police and local authorities to ease the burden on farmers and alleviate the suffering and cruelty inflicted on the poor animals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing such an important debate. I would also like to explain that I might not be able to stay for the full length of the debate, as I face the not unusual House of Commons problem of having to be in two places at the same time. However, I would like to use the minutes that you have allotted me, Mr Hollobone, to make a few points.
As the hon. Member for East Hampshire rightly said, although the problem of abandoned horses might be thought predominantly to affect rural areas, that is certainly not the whole case. I can assure the House that it is a significant problem in some urban areas, such as my own black country constituency. In many parts of the black country, specifically around the Bilston and Bradley areas of my constituency, it is common to see horses grazing on abandoned former industrial land or small plots of common land. The state of the horses varies. Sometimes they are in a decent state and looked after, but sometimes they are not and are in a very poor state. Sometimes they are tethered, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they can break free and be found wandering round housing estates, going into people’s gardens and causing at least a nuisance and in some cases real danger.
The hon. Gentleman is right that sometimes the horses die, particularly in winter when they are not fed during harsh weather. The problem is difficult to tackle on two different levels because of what I call the ownership issue. By ownership, I mean that it is difficult to establish who owns the horse. Even if you can establish that, it is difficult to get that person to accept responsibility for the horse’s welfare. In theory, under the law, horses should be microchipped and have passports that enable them to be identified, but the Minister will be aware that the law is routinely breached and ignored. I have been told by the animal welfare officer at Wolverhampton city council that, in her estimate, the vast majority of abandoned horses in my constituency have no microchip. The system is therefore simply not operating.
The first ownership problem is that it is difficult for the authorities to know to whom the horses belong. The other problem is that they are moved around at short notice, leaving a place and returning to it, which makes it difficult to track them. Another aspect of the ownership problem is that it is not clear who, in law, is responsible for policing the issue, removing horses and dealing with the problem. The police tend not to get involved unless the horse is on the highway, and practice among local authorities varies greatly. Some try to tackle the problem with energy and resources, but some do very little. The owners are aware of that and can take advantage of the situation by moving the horses around from one piece of open ground to another. Horse owners know that councils’ attitudes differ in that way.
The part of my constituency that is most affected by the problem is close to the boundaries of Wolverhampton, Dudley and Sandwell. It is quite easy for horses to be moved, and that makes enforcement more difficult. Sandwell is next to Wolverhampton, and its council estimates that the cost of a removal—for bureaucracy and transport, as well as legal and animal welfare costs—can be up to £1,500. Some councils have tried to tackle the problem by providing grazing space and charging owners to put horses there. For responsible owners, that may work. However, irresponsible owners currently get a free good by putting horses where they should not; they are unlikely to queue up to pay £10 a week or more for what they currently get for nothing.
Another issue is the resources of local authorities. I am not making a partisan point, but we know that money is tight for councils. Wolverhampton city council has one animal welfare officer, who works part time. She is responsible for pet shops, domestically kept animals, the few farms in the city council area and the huge issue of abandoned or illegally tethered horses. I spoke to her earlier today, and by lunch time she had had three reports from the public of concern about abandoned horses. To expect her, on her own and working part time, to deal effectively with the issue alongside her other responsibilities is clearly absurd, and it will not work.
Even for officers who have enough time, another issue is at play, which we should be honest about: fear. Although the horse owners may not want to declare themselves, those involved in removing horses fear reprisals by them. It cannot be right that those who are empowered to deal with the situation, albeit on an imperfect and incomplete legal basis, should be inhibited from carrying through their powers by fear of reprisals. We would not tolerate that state of affairs in other walks of life, and we should not tolerate it in the one we are debating. The effect of what I have outlined is a problem that has gone on for years without a proper solution and without anyone getting a proper grip on it. It is a significant animal welfare problem that causes the public disturbance and distress. We cannot go on as we are.
What, then, is to be done? The current law is inadequate. There is a right of removal under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but only if the horses are in poor or severe condition, which is not always the case. Different provisions apply to public and private land, and there are different approaches for the highway or common land. All that needs to be straightened out and simplified. I do not know whether what the Welsh Assembly Government are doing is perfect, but at least animal welfare groups, landowners and the general public have welcomed it. The Minister should endeavour to clarify and simplify the law to make it easier to remove the animals.
The simplification should include introducing easier powers of removal from common land; minimising cost and delay in dealing with some of the issues that the hon. Member for East Hampshire raised; and removing the problem of proving ownership—in fact, why not reverse the burden of proof and ask those who claim ownership of the horse to prove it, rather than charging local authorities with running around trying to find out who owns it? The changes should also include improving animal welfare and giving confidence to the public. The problem is growing, and may grow further because of what has happened in Wales. The fact that solving it has been too difficult so far should not prevent us from putting our heads together and trying to come up with a better system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) on his contribution. This is a huge issue of not only welfare—bordering on criminality—but antisocial behaviour. We need to look at both aspects if we are to come up with a solution.
I first came to terms with the subject when a constituent came to me in despair, having found a number of horses in a field that she owned and been told by the local authority that there was nothing she could do to remove the horses; that there was no way of identifying whose they were; and, what was more, that she was now liable for the welfare of the animals, with third-party liability should anyone be injured crossing her land on which the horses now resided. She was quite rightly extremely upset that that should be the case. I looked into it further and found that it was not an isolated problem, even in my own area—I was told, anecdotally, that one gentleman owns 80 horses, but not one square foot of land on which to graze them, so was using everyone else’s land—and throughout the country.
As has been suggested, the situation has been exacerbated by what to some extent has been a crisis in horse ownership. The recent difficulties in the economy have meant that an awful lot of people who bought horses with the firm intention of looking after them properly now find that they are unable to do so, so a lot more horses and ponies are either abandoned or sold cheaply than would normally be the case. Had I any doubts about that, they would have been dispelled by visiting the Glenda Spooner farm in my constituency, in Kingsdon, near Somerton. It is run by World Horse Welfare, which has already been mentioned and does a superb job of looking after abandoned animals and getting them back into shape so that they can be rehomed. I applaud its work.
I was trying to address the issue when I was in the Minister’s position, and it is not without its complications—I will not pretend otherwise. It boils down to a number of clear areas in which the Government could perhaps have an effect. First, on intervention, the Government can help to prevent animals from entering the stream, as it were, by supporting horse charities and perhaps by considering what they can do directly to help people who get into difficulties to find a new home for their horses.
Secondly—a lot of the debate will be about this—there is the possibility of new powers. I discussed that at length with the Home Office, which assured me many times that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill would be capable of remedying the nuisance. Potentially it will be, through the injunctions in the Bill and community protection orders, but we need guidance to be issued to local authorities and others as to how they can use the powers in the Bill to provide help in the area we are discussing. I hope the Minister will help me with that. Failing that, we need to look at the Welsh proposals. I spoke to Alun Davies, the Minister in Wales, some months ago about the subject, because I knew that he was working on his proposals. What is being suggested in Wales—providing a range of disposals to local authorities and others—seems to have an awful lot of merit.
Thirdly, I want us to consider liability, which I remember discussing many years ago during consideration of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, when it became clear that people had an absolute liability for animals on their land. That cannot be right. If it is not their animal, they did not ask for it to be there and they do not want it to be there, how on earth can they be liable for its actions? Yet that is the situation in law.
Lastly, we need to deal with identification. Microchipping needs to be enforced, of course, but that applies only to horses under four years old. There is a misconception about the national equine database, which was abolished by my predecessor, in that it did not provide traceability. We need a hugely better passporting system that ensures that we can trace a horse back to its owner. Serious discussion was going on with the Irish and French Governments on the issue, and I wonder whether the Minister can bring us up to date on where precisely we are.
I wish to raise a final, not uncontroversial, issue, which I remember discussing with the Irish Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney. I am not betraying any confidence, because he has since discussed it with his Select Committee in the Dail, but he told me about the possibility of widening hugely the euthanising of horses in the Republic of Ireland, because of the overpopulation. We have to give serious consideration to that. No one wants to kill horses, any more than anything else, but if we have huge overpopulation, we will never get to grips with the welfare issues. We first have to reduce the population, bringing it back to the sort of level where we can find enough good, careful and sensible owners to look after the horses.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is somewhat poorer since he left as a Minister, but we have had the joy of hearing his words of wisdom today. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who is a good friend of mine, on securing the debate, for which the whole House has come together. Like many Members, I have received a great many representations from constituents who have expressed concerns about fly-grazing, and 10 of them asked me to attend the debate specifically because of horse welfare.
Fly-grazing of horses is illegal, but the legislation makes it difficult for landowners to remove horses from their land. Fly-grazing poses risks to people when horses wander the roads, going through school grounds, digging up sports fields or damaging nature reserves. In June 2013, animal welfare charities released “Left on the Verge”, which reported that more than 7,000 horses were at risk of needing rehoming or rescuing.
This issue was recently brought home to me by a constituent, Mr William Jenkins, who grazes his horses on Manmoel common, in the heart of my constituency. He relies on common-land grazing to feed his stock in the spring—more so than ever this year. However, when he turned his flock on to the common in May, after one of the harshest winters he can recall, there was little grass to graze, because it had already been eaten by dozens of abandoned ponies—unsurprisingly, many had already perished in the prolonged freezing conditions, dying of starvation or exposure. This has been an issue on Manmoel common for a number of years—although not only there—robbing farmers of their historic rights to graze the common, an important food source for livestock.
In a recent case, more than 100 horses were destroyed after being kept in detrimental conditions. They were among 400 horses found in a neglected state by RSPCA inspectors. In another recent case, a breeder was sentenced to 10 weeks in jail and banned from keeping horses for 10 years after being found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering when nine horses had to be put down and another 51 placed in sanctuaries.
There are a number of reasons why fly-grazing throughout England and Wales is increasing—primarily, the economic downturn combined with too many horses being bred. The result has been a horse market in which horses at every level have dropped in price. At the lowest end, they are being sold at auction for as little as £5. Farmers may advertise a horse and sell it after 14 days to cover their costs, but if the pony has no passport or microchip, that animal cannot be sold, costing the farmer more than the cost of raising the horse. There are also reports of some dealers cutting the cost of animal welfare and disposing of their horses by abandoning them on other people’s land when the horse has no further value to them.
The issue is made worse by the confusion about who has responsibility for fly-grazed horses. Is it local authorities, landowners or animal welfare charities? The Government need to take action to clarify the situation. Dealing with abandoned horses is a problem further complicated by rescue centres being under severe pressure and close to capacity, local authorities struggling with the numbers of horses left on their land, and landowners having to engage in costly legal action to have abandoned horses removed safely.
Another reason for the proliferation of fly-grazing is that the mechanisms in place for prosecution are insufficient and perpetrators are finding it easy to get away with—the benefits to them far outweigh the cost. The present law is insufficient, as it makes pre-emptive action impossible, and is insufficient when attempting to trace horse owners. Indeed, the inability to trace ownership is the fundamental reason why current laws do not work. Fly-grazers do not comply with horse identification legislation, and horses are often not microchipped when they should be.
The problem comes down to the complex mix of legislation relevant to removing fly-grazing horses. It includes the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Animals Act 1971, the common law of lost or abandoned property, the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, the Highways Act 1980, the Equine Identification (Wales) Regulations 2009 and the Horse Passports Regulations 2009—makes sense that, if you are a farmer or a horse owner, Mr Hollobone. All situations are different and require different elements of legislation to resolve them. Enforcers such as the police and local authorities will get involved only in incidents that violate criminal law.
On local authorities, is my hon. Friend aware of the situation in places including Bassetlaw where, when the local authority takes action for good reason, the horse owner simply moves the horse to a non-local authority-owned piece of land, and if the owner of that land takes action, they move the horse back to the local authority land? In other words, they can never be nailed down under the law.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Horses are being moved round in a cycle. People are wise to the law and know that unless a criminal act has taken place there is no violation.
As a Welsh MP, I think we should look to the Welsh approach. As the hon. Member for East Hampshire said, that approach might not be perfect, but it is at least a start and is getting a grip on the problem. Wales is now taking action to rectify the problem. Ministers there are introducing a new Bill to tackle fly-grazing, the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill, which will take effect from early 2014. Conservative estimates are that 3,000 horses are being fly-grazed in Wales and 2,500 in England. Given the tough approach being taken by the Welsh Government, the Westminster Government need to highlight what measures they are taking to ensure that those 3,000 horses in Wales do not simply become England’s problem, which follows on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Fly-grazing is also a cross-border issue. My constituent, Mr Jenkins, supports the Welsh Government and has said:
“I think the new legislation will go a long way to help stop the problem, it will make people think twice about fly-grazing. The legislation is not perfect, a lot more could be done, but it is a step in the right direction and something we can work off moving forward.”
That is the issue.
The Westminster Government need to take action on the issue of fly-grazing, which has been getting increasingly worse over the past two to three years. They must simplify the legislation dealing with fly-grazing, whether they opt to make small amendments to existing legislation, such as the Animals Act 1971, or introduce new legislation, as the Welsh Government are doing. While streamlining the existing legislation, the Government also need to enforce the equine identification legislation, including the requirements to microchip and register horses.
There are several key areas that need to be addressed in any action taken by the Government. The first is easier removal of horses. It should be possible to remove horses immediately and dispose of them after seven days if the owner does not come forward. Secondly, we should reverse the burden of proof of ownership. Owners should have to prove ownership of horses they have sought to claim, which would reduce costs and the time currently spent by local authorities. Thirdly, we should make it easier to dispose of horses. Currently, horses can only be sent to auction or sold at market. Authorities should authorise options such as rehoming or, in worst-case scenarios, disposal.
I have two key questions for the Minister. We have seen in Wales that to enforce the legislation we will need multi-agency co-operation between local authorities, the police and charities. What support will the Government give to enable forward planning and the prioritisation of resources? Secondly, will the Government provide guidance to landowners and local authorities on how to handle cases of fly-grazing so that costly legal advice need not be taken to determine exactly which of the seven or eight pieces of relevant legislation apply?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate.
My hon. Friend may remember that I secured a similar debate back in July last year, on the connected issue of illegally tethered horses and the steps we need to take to clamp down on that problem. I said then that the problems that my constituents face on the edge of York with fly-grazing and illegally tethered horses are not restricted to York or the Yorkshire region. The problem is found throughout the country, predominantly —although not exclusively—in rural areas. I hope that the number of Members attending this debate has sent a clear message to the Minister about how important the issue is to constituencies around the country.
It must be remembered that fly-grazing not only blights the lives of the horses that are subjected to it, but impacts on farmers who grow crops that are destroyed and puts road users in jeopardy when animals stray on to the highway. I have had various meetings with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the local National Farmers Union and constituents about the issue of fly-grazing, and the message is clear: no one group can solve the problem alone. It is essential that we all work together on this growing crisis. The only way we can do that is with the support of the public, the Government agencies, the police and local authorities. If we all work together, we can stop the abuse once and for all.
At the core of the issue is a simple but profound point of principle that I believe in: no one should be above the law. Nor should people’s lives be negatively affected by those who have little regard for such laws. This is a horse crisis. That is exactly how the charities concerned regard the issue, in the excellent report “Left on the Verge”. The RSPCA, Redwings horse sanctuary, the Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld and the British Horse Society have all reported an increase in the number of cases of neglect and abandonment that have been brought to their attention.
Local newspapers are also reporting huge numbers of cases of tragic horse deaths. In my constituency, the Express & Star, the Stourbridge News and the Dudley News are regularly filled with stories about horrific cases of horse death and neglect. Has my hon. Friend had a similar experience?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Those sorts of issues have been reported regularly in local media in my area. Also, there have been reports of issues on the highway, with cases of horses that were illegally tethered or were being fly-grazed on the highway escaping on to it and causing serious road accidents. We have to remember that this issue has a wider impact than just illegal fly-grazing.
My understanding is that ever since the horsemeat scandal, which devastated our confidence in the EU’s food safety process, the price of horsemeat has plummeted. Notwithstanding that collapse, irresponsible dealers have continued to buy, breed and import horses as the market has become saturated. As has already been mentioned, a horse can now be purchased for as little as £5, although it can often cost in excess of £100 a week to look after it properly. Irresponsible dealers are importing horses from France and Ireland under the tripartite agreement that allows for the free movement of horses without health checks.
As the market for horsemeat in mainland Europe is depressed, dealers are left with a surplus of horses, much of which, sadly, can been seen along the roadside and in other people’s fields, or even in people’s gardens. One particular case from my postbag, which I would like to touch on briefly, highlights the vast amount of damage that fly-grazing can do and the way it affects farmers. My constituent, Mr David Shaw, farms land in Osbaldwick that is located in close proximity to the local Traveller site. Mr Shaw’s land has been regularly overtaken by horses belonging to the Traveller community, which has caused a great deal of damage to his fences and crops, and to the land itself. Just recently, in October, Mr Shaw found approximately 14 horses in his fields. He turned them out, repaired the fences and spoke to the Traveller who owned them, requesting that he keep them off his land, but l5 minutes later the horses were back in his maize field again.
To me, that sounds like intimidation of landowners, so I wonder whether my hon. Friend and neighbour has had similar experiences to me. A constituent of mine came to one of my surgeries in tears because he had found horses in a paddock that he owns, with a sign asking him to ring about them. When he did, he was told that if they did not stay on his land for a certain period, he could be in trouble. The police should surely take serious action about that sort of intimidation.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and neighbour. That is a worrying development; indeed, I now want to talk about some of the intimidation that my constituent has suffered from.
The following Sunday, Mr Shaw again found the horses in his field. He spoke to the owner once more, and it turned out that the owner was banned from keeping animals, following a previous cruelty case brought against him. Mr Shaw was subjected to the most horrific verbal abuse. Despite that, he carried on. He removed the horses and mended the fences. That evening, he again found them back in his field again. This exhausting exchange continued for a further four days, in which Mr Shaw spent well over 12 hours of his time dealing with the issue, all the while trying to run his dairy business. He removed the horses from his field a total of nine times and mended the fences the same number of times. That is a lot of expense for a problem that the council can do little to help him with.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire touched on the problems of the existing law. He also touched on the need for an equine database, and I entirely agree with that. The action that the Welsh Assembly is taking has been well rehearsed. I start from the simple principle that fly-grazing should be a criminal offence, to ensure that action can be taken swiftly and offenders brought to justice. The culprits are too often simply banned from keeping horses for a period, but the easy way round that is for animals to be transferred into the ownership of a relative. When horses are starving on the roadside, justice dictates that a custodial sentence should be brought to bear for such a horrible abuse.
It is essential that horse traceability is improved, because rules are routinely flouted, with few if any sanctions for non-compliance. It is important for everyone locally—the police, the local authority, animal welfare charities, the NFU and Traveller representatives—to work together for a long-term solution. I intend to hold a round-table meeting in my constituency in the new year to add impetus to the issue. Sadly, fly-grazing affects and touches many people in different ways—
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate.
I am secretary of the all-party group for the horse, which is well aware of the extent and depth of the equine crisis. It has been caused by the cost of keeping horses, which has increased at a time when many family incomes have come under pressure, with people finding themselves less able to look after their horses and ponies properly. The people involved in fly-grazing are many and varied. Some keep horses commercially and their incomes have decreased. Rather than disposing of their horses responsibly, they have tried to keep them irresponsibly. There was a terrible example in Wales of someone who kept many coloured horses and bred from them, but slaughtered every colt foal, keeping only filly foals. It was one of the worst examples of animal welfare abuse I have come across.
Some people who keep horses for personal or recreational purposes can no longer afford to keep them. However, because they cannot afford to put them down—doing so responsibly is quite an expensive affair nowadays—they let the horses out on any available ground. That ground is variable, as we have heard. Sometimes the land is owned for proper purposes by the local authority, on verges beside roads, and sometimes it is owned privately—we have heard examples of that. However, one example we have not heard about—although the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned this—is that when people cannot afford to keep horses and ponies, it has sometimes been the practice in south Wales to turn them out on common land. That land is often extensive and remote. If a horse is turned out there, it is out of sight and out of mind, but it will suffer greatly, particularly as winter approaches.
Some commoners’ associations act responsibly, and at this time of year will gather all the horses and ponies from the common and establish who owns them and whether they are fit enough to go back on the common for the winter. Welsh mountain ponies are bred to survive difficult conditions and are fed only when conditions are extreme and there is snow on the ground. The commoners will bring in all the horses and dispose of them humanely if they cannot establish who an owner is. I congratulate commoners’ associations that act in that way—I have experience of one common, the rights of which are owned by the Duke of Beaufort, who acts responsibly.
The problem is not the fault of the horse or the pony, and dealing with the horses or ponies is not the way to ensure that such practices stop. Therefore, we must take action against the owners. I know the difficulty—many hon. Members have rightly emphasised the need for a proper identification process, so that we can establish who is responsible—but action must be taken against owners who have caused or are likely to cause harm to the horses.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) spoke about people who are already banned from keeping horses who are then found to have committed the offence again, but suffer very small penalties. As far as I am concerned, there is only one penalty for anyone who is banned from keeping animals but then found to be doing so without looking after their welfare properly and responsibly, and that is imprisonment. If that was the case, the message would go out that people cannot abuse horses or any animals in their care, and the situation would improve. However, only when magistrates courts understand the severity of such actions will such people be sent to jail.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, in this important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) not only for securing it, but for introducing it, covering the issues and touching on some sensitive matters in a way that brought all the parties together.
The problem is significant in Wales, and exceptionally so in the Vale of Glamorgan. Just two weeks ago, the BBC reported on the network news that 45 horses were tragically destroyed as a result of animal welfare issues. That case involved the excellent work of charities such as Redwings and World Horse Welfare. I pay tribute to those organisations for the compassionate work they conduct in difficult circumstances. However, a constituent contacted me to say that it was not just 45 horses destroyed, but ultimately hundreds. That demonstrates the scale of the problem just two weeks ago.
Over the last year alone, hundreds of horses have regularly been moved, throughout my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies, and on scores of occasions. The police recently reported to me that they were involved in 1,500 horse-related incidents in the last 13 months alone. Animal welfare must be our driving focus in this debate, but we must bear in mind the significant financial cost. The police estimate the cost to be around £1.2 million, and they can point to £745,000 spent directly by them, the local authorities and the RSPCA. One example, from a range of services that have to spend money to protect themselves and ensure safety, is Bryntirion comprehensive school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). That school had to spend £61,000 on a fence to protect children in the playground because horses were so regularly breaking the boundary fence and grazing on the playing fields. Not only were they breaking the fence, but they were causing damage to the school and preventing children from participating in physical education and using those facilities. Landowners also face significant costs. The average farmer in my constituency will face a cost of between £1,000 and £1,500 if he is involved in fly-grazing in any way. Some 56% of farmers responded to a survey saying that their land had been involved in fly-grazing.
I can cite those factual data, or accurate data, because of a co-ordinated effort led by the police force. In particular, I pay tribute to South Wales police and Superintendent Paul James, who worked extremely closely with the local authorities in Bridgend, the Vale of Glamorgan and Gwent, where Operation Thallium led to a focused approach to ensure that every organisation, including the charities, were co-ordinated in trying to bring about an end to the problem throughout my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies.
I remember that Superintendent Paul James said to me this time last year, “Unless we resolve the problem on this occasion, I simply don’t know where we can go next year”. That was because of the resources being taken up. It was not only about the financial issues that I have highlighted, but about the time, which would not be costed into the figures that I mentioned, that he and all his colleagues had to spend trying to bring an end to the problem. There was one prosecution, but I fear that we are entering a situation in which the problem is simply being moved from my area to other areas.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I have a similar issue in some parts of my constituency, which may surprise people. In Bedfont, a number of residents have approached me about similar situations. Does the hon. Gentleman share the growing concern of charities, which now say that they are running out of resources to help horses and other animals that are being neglected?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention and support her in that. She has also highlighted that it is not only rural areas that are affected. The problem has become so great that it affects urban areas and particularly urban fringes, where horses end up close to towns whose large populations are put at risk because of the problem.
Operation Thallium, a joint effort by the police and the Welsh Local Government Association, identified three key themes. One was about the identification of horses and the need for proof, and how difficult that makes things. The second was the delay that the landowner, having identified the horses or ended up with horses fly-grazing on their private land, experiences before they can act to dispose of the horses. People end up being almost forced or encouraged, on some occasions, to contribute to the problem. Scores of horses can be found on domestic properties, and strictly speaking, according to the law, people should be looking after the horses according to welfare standards, rather than driving them out on to the road to move the problem forward.
It is a shame that I cannot expand much more on that, but I want to underline the third theme, which is how the horses are handled thereafter and their disposal. The delay that I touched on is significant, with the current legislation restricting the agencies to acting in a humane, responsible way and considering the auction obligation. However, the euthanasia issue also needs to be addressed. I pay tribute to the Welsh Government and the way in which they are approaching the legislation. It is an important start—it is not perfect, but I hope that the Department will take it on board.
It is great to serve under your stewardship again, Mr Hollobone. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this timely debate, and I want to thank all the other Members who have spoken. I will not be able to note their contributions in full, but I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). I shall turn to the Vale of Glamorgan in a moment. It has been a very good, wide-ranging debate with expert thought and analysis.
I also thank the organisations that have campaigned long and hard on the issue to force the growing crisis—and it is a crisis—of horse and pony fly-grazing up the political agenda. Those organisations include the RSPCA, Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings, which came together to produce a damning report called “Left on the Verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales”. It catalogued appalling neglect and animal welfare abuses in London and Gravesend, Tyne and Wear and Blackpool, County Durham and Norfolk, and Bristol and Leicestershire —in short, in all parts of the United Kingdom.
I also thank the local authorities such as Durham, Cardiff and Bridgend and the coterminous police authorities who have taken a positive lead in developing joint-working protocols and memorandums of understanding to tackle the problem. I pay tribute to the leadership shown by the Labour Government in Wales and the National Assembly for Wales, who, as we speak, are fast-tracking new legislation as an early Christmas present. Where Wales leads in tackling fly-grazing, we hope that England will follow.
The past three years have seen a crisis develop in fly-grazing in the UK. Horses are suffering and dying in increasing numbers. Local authorities, police and highways agencies are navigating through legislation that is, frankly, out of date and not fit for purpose. Farmers, conservation bodies, other landowners and commoners are seeing their land trashed. Horse and animal welfare organisations, along with the public, are dismayed at the seeming inability of authorities to act promptly and decisively. However, their hands are tied. Minister, we must seek to resolve this issue in Parliament and in Government, and in collaboration with those affected.
It is worth saying that there are many good horse and pony owners, including many in the travelling community and others for whom responsible horse ownership and trading is an integral part of their way of life and culture. We should remember that. However, this debate is not about the good owners or even about some romanticised valleys culture, as portrayed in the quite wonderful series, “Stella”, in which the neighbour in the terraced house opposite keeps a horse in the house as part of the family—I am not sure whether the RSPCA would approve of that. It is also not about whatever the equivalent is in Tyneside or Gravesend.
The issue is about the increasing horse welfare problems associated with fly-grazing and the tethering of horses. It is about the dumping of those horses in the light of over-breeding, the drop in the value of horses and the lack of passporting and micro-chipping or easy identification of horse ownership. It is about the complexity of outdated legislation, which allows frankly unscrupulous owners to dance, at great taxpayer expense, around the authorities and the enforcement agencies. It is also about criminality.
The Equine Sector Council for Health and Welfare notes the rapid rise in reported incidents over the past three years as the cost of responsible care and disposal of horses has outstripped their commercial value; the 20% rise in calls to the RSPCA for tethered horses in 2011; the rise in welfare concerns to Redwings over fly-grazing, from 160 reports in 2009 to 500 in the first six months of 2012; and the huge rise in reported incidents to local authorities. That crisis has grown remarkably in the past three years and has shown, as it has grown, the legislation to be sorely wanting.
My constituency of Ogmore in south Wales includes the local authority of Bridgend, which, along with neighbouring authorities such as those in the Vale of Glamorgan, represented by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan, has seen some of the worst excesses and abuses of horse and pony welfare in recent years. Labour-run Bridgend county borough council and the neighbouring coalition council in the Vale of Glamorgan are to be commended for their strenuous efforts alongside South Wales police and animal welfare organisations to resolve the situation, although it has been tortuous and unnecessarily complex and costly due to outdated legislation.
In January this year alone, South Wales police reported nearly 500 calls from the public about nuisance, damage and animal welfare issues because of fly-grazing. Much attention centred on one individual and his family, a well known horse trader in south Wales, who regularly denied responsibility and ownership. That lengthened the time-consuming and costly farce for taxpayers, local authorities, and police and animal welfare agencies with those responsible ducking and diving to evade their responsibilities.
In such cases, public areas such as school playing fields, which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan mentioned, and common land are trashed. Private land becomes temporary corrals for apparently ownerless horses that appear there overnight through broken fences and disappear just as quickly when enforcement measures are eventually taken. There are risks to public safety and to highways—and all the time, horses and ponies suffer and die through wilful neglect. Outdated and ill-fitting legislation and enforcement powers allow criminals to pirouette through their responsibilities and evade justice, and the horses suffer, as do the public, private landowners and commoners who find themselves enmeshed in this cruel and unnecessary tragic farce.
The individual whom I mentioned, Thomas Tony Price of Wick, was found guilty in June of 57 offences of causing unnecessary suffering and failing to meet the needs of 27 horses. His two sons were also found guilty of related offences. RSPCA Inspector Christine McNeil, commenting on the 12 horses found locked in a barn with no space and no access to food and water—she believed they had been left there to die—said:
“These horses turned out to be the most poorly and diseased horses I have come across.”
She then turned her comments to the wider, UK issues. That individual is now in custody, but that is not the end of the matter. The RSPCA, which was intimately involved in the original case, now fears that the estimated 2,000 to 2,500 horses in the family’s care—I use the term “care” advisedly—that have historically been moved from location to location anyway, may have been steadily relocated across Offa’s Dyke to England, where the enforcement agencies may not be as prepared, in anticipation of the law’s being strengthened in Wales.
In short, parts of England are being seen as the softer option, and Wales’s problem may now be being exported to add to the existing problems in England. Horses that may be related to the south Wales case have already been appearing in the Surrey and Hampshire areas and elsewhere, causing the same problems and concerns.
That is just one sad postscript to the story in south Wales. As of last week, despite the best efforts of the RSPCA, the Vale council, the Redwings sanctuary and the police, just over 100 horses had been euthanised at a site in the Vale of Glamorgan. Thankfully, others have been rehomed. Our thanks go out—I know that the thanks of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan do—to all those involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of the animals and to resolve this tragic saga.
Labour is urging the Government immediately to follow the leadership of the Labour Government in Wales and National Assembly Members, who will bring forward new legislation within weeks, or to update, at least, existing legislation to the same effect. Otherwise, what is good news for Wales could result in the 3,000 Welsh horses becoming England’s problem overnight, adding to the 2,500 already in England. We call on the Government urgently to consult on new or revised legislation and other measures to tackle fly-grazing in England and to bring forward proposals at the earliest opportunity.
The coalition of horse and animal welfare charities that produced the report “Left on the Verge”, which I have referred to, have also produced the blueprint for the way forward. With new legislation—the Welsh Government model—or with amendments to existing legislation such as the Animals Act 1971, the changes would remove the barriers that currently prevent timely action against fly-grazing. The changes would include: the ability to remove fly-grazed horses immediately and, if rehoming and all else fails, to dispose of the horses within seven days; making it easier to dispose of the horses by rehoming them or, when all else fails, by euthanising them, rather than sending them, in a costly process, to auction; reversing the burden of proof on ownership and so reducing the financial and time costs to local authorities of proving ownership; and improving enforcement and joint working in a wide range of ways.
I know that “unions” is normally a dirty word for this Government, but I ask the Minister to listen to the words of at least one union, the National Farmers Union, which is demanding that the Government match the legislative changes in Wales or risk more horses being abandoned in England, or to the words of the coalition of horse and animal welfare groups when they say in their report that Wales is taking action—England must, too. We will support the Minister and the Government in bringing forward the necessary legislative changes at the earliest opportunity, but if the Government are minded to resist, we will make the necessary changes when we return to government.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate. I, like many other hon. Members, have received lots of e-mails from constituents imploring me to attend the debate. I have been able to reply to them and say, “I’ll see what I can do.” It is a delight to be here to respond on behalf of the Government.
We have heard a little today about the scale of the problem. Although there are no official figures, the charities concerned have estimated that almost 7,000 horses are at risk. The welfare charities, in their report “Left on the Verge”, which has been cited by numerous hon. Members, have also identified a growing trend in welfare cases involving equines. Incidents of fly-grazing appear to be on the rise. Clearly, that is wrong and both a burden and a source of concern for the landowners affected.
I want to pick up on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) made about the stress that the practice can cause landowners. He makes an incredibly important point. We are talking about people who care deeply about animals and livestock, and it can be very distressing for them to find abandoned on their land horses that have not been cared for—that have been neglected, maltreated or underfed. They may have been left in fields where there is ragwort, for instance, which could affect their health. Sometimes the field is not sufficiently secure to keep the horse within it. I was very struck also by the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) about the school that had to spend money to put up fences to keep horses off its land as a result of this problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome also talked about the cost borne by the landowners in these cases, and it is true that that is a feature. I point out that sections 4 and 7 of the Animals Act 1971 give powers for landowners to recover that cost, but I completely accept that, as with all these things, the difficulty is in the landowners being able to bring a case to get the money back.
Let me say a little more about what laws are currently in place, or we have in the pipeline, that could be used to tackle some of the issues described today. It is important to note that quite a lot of powers are already available. First, section 7 of the Animals Act 1971, which applies in England and Wales, allows horses to be taken into the landowner’s possession, provided that certain conditions are met. After 14 days, the horses may be sold. The landowner may also claim any reasonable costs from the owner of the horses for the upkeep of the horses or any damage that they do until they are either returned to the owner or sold at market.
Secondly, as a number of hon. Members have highlighted, the Highways Act 1980 can also be used and is often used by local authorities. That Act makes it an offence for horses to stray or lie on or at the side of a highway. The police have powers to remove the horses, and reasonable costs can be recovered from the owners in doing so.
Thirdly, as we have heard today, horses that are simply abandoned or neglected are often in a poor state of welfare. I was particularly struck by the appalling anecdote told by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) about horses that were literally dying on a tether in some instances and by the case cited by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) involving someone who had dozens or hundreds of horses that were being neglected.
It is important to recognise, though, that in such circumstances it is possible to use section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to fail to provide for the welfare needs of an animal. The DEFRA statutory code of practice for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids provides clear advice on how to meet the requirements of the Act. Although failure to abide by the code is not in itself an offence, it can be used in a court of law as evidence of neglect, and frequently is.
I will address that point in a moment. I just want to make this point about new powers in the pipeline. Clearly, the act of leaving a horse or horses on another person’s land is an example of antisocial behaviour. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is currently before Parliament and, when enacted, will provide enforcers with new and much more flexible powers to tackle antisocial behaviour in all its forms, including the act of leaving a horse on someone else’s land. Indeed, there have already been some instances in which the existing antisocial behaviour orders—ASBOs—have been served on perpetrators of fly-grazing.
The new antisocial behaviour measures will make it even easier for enforcers to use such powers to tackle these problems. For example, if a person is identified as having left their horse on someone else’s land without permission, the local authority or police could issue a community protection notice requiring the individual to do anything reasonable to address the antisocial behaviour.
In the case of fly-grazed horses, the notice might require the individual to remove or even to sell the horses. Failure to abide by a community protection notice is a criminal offence, and anyone who does so may face a fine or other sanctions. The provisions give the authorities power to impose a forfeiture order on any item, including an animal, used to breach a community protection notice; in this case, that would be a horse.
Several hon. Members have alluded to the frustration of those who complain to the authorities about such problems but no action appears to be taken. If a complainant is dissatisfied with a local authority, either because it has not responded to their concern or because they consider that it has not dealt with the concern effectively, it may be possible to use the new community trigger. Under the community trigger, the police, local authorities and other organisations can be required to review their response if a resident or group of residents have complained about the same problem three or more times and are not satisfied with the response.
In applying all those antisocial behaviour measures, it is necessary to know who the culprits are. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that we can tackle the problem without identifying and tackling irresponsible owners. If authorities can pool their intelligence and information, it should be possible to identify the leading perpetrators of fly-grazing and take appropriate action. If the problem is acute in certain areas—looking at the charts, Wales appears to be particularly badly affected—it should be a priority for the authorities to do whatever is necessary to deal with it. The tools are there, and we need to ensure that they are enforced.
One of the problems in dealing with fly-grazing is identifying the owners. As we know, identification of the owners of the horses involved is one of the key issues in enabling the authorities and those with whom they work to tackle fly-grazing.
I will press on, otherwise I will not cover all the points.
Revised horse passport regulations have been in force since 2009. They require all owners to obtain a passport for each horse that they own and all newly identified horses to be fitted with a microchip. We and other member states are currently considering EU Commission proposals to improve and strengthen the horse passport regime in response to the horsemeat fraud incident earlier this year.
Several measures are under consideration, including stricter standards for passports and a requirement for all member states to operate a central equine database, to which several hon. Members have alluded. DEFRA officials are working closely with the equine sector council strategy steering committee on the matter. As we have heard today, however, horses associated with antisocial behaviour are frequently not identified, so although we welcome the strengthening of the horse passport regulations, we recognise that it is not a solution in itself.
I wanted to touch briefly on another point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the tripartite agreement between France, Ireland and the UK. The Government are committed to protecting our equine industry from the threat of disease from overseas. European statute requires that horses that move between EU member states must undergo a veterinary inspection 48 hours prior to movement, and that they must be accompanied by a passport and health certificate. Any movement must be pre-notified to the competent authorities.
However, the existing tripartite agreement applies a derogation from those rules for horses moving between the UK, France and Ireland, on the basis that the three countries share the same health status for equines, and it seems reasonable that that should continue. We have, therefore, managed to avoid imposing unnecessary costs and burdens on horse owners.
Following considerable work with the equine sector and the member states concerned, I can confirm that a new tripartite agreement has been signed, which limits the derogation from EU health controls for intra-EU trade to groups of horses with a demonstrably higher health status. That will come into effect in May 2014. Those new changes will apply only to movements between the UK and France, and Ireland and France. The situation regarding movements between Ireland and the UK remains unchanged, because we are satisfied that on disease control grounds—bearing in mind the aims of the relevant EU directive—there is no additional risk. The new agreement between the UK, France and Ireland will hugely benefit the sector.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) highlighted the importance of co-ordination. We have been particularly struck by the protocols introduced by councils in Wakefield and York, which give guidance to local practitioners about the steps they should take to deal with the problem of fly-grazing, citing all the laws at their disposal. I emphasise to local authorities that they can use existing and future antisocial behaviour legislation to tackle that problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire and others have asked whether it would be possible to provide further guidance, and we are looking at that. In the case of tackling dangerous dogs, for instance, we issued specific guidance to councils so that they understood the implications of the new measures. We are keen to learn from Wakefield and York councils about whether further work can be done in the area.
On the Welsh proposals, there are a couple of limitations. My biggest concern with what is proposed in Wales is that it introduces no new powers beyond those in the Animal Act 1971, but it shortens the time scales. There is a danger of our putting the onus on local authorities to deal with the problem, rather than on tackling irresponsible owners. We could end up imposing costs and additional burdens on local authorities—