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Control of Horses Bill

Volume 590: debated on Friday 16 January 2015

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee

Clause 1

Powers of local authorities in England to detain horses

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 2, page 2, line 35, in clause 2, leave out

“to whom the horse belongs”

and insert

“both to whom the horse belongs and an address within the United Kingdom at which proper service as defined under this section may be made”.

Amendment 3, page 2, line 36, in clause 2, at end insert—

‘( ) For the purposes of this section proper service of a notice may be made by posting by first class post to the address of the person to whom the horse belongs a written notice—

(a) stating that the horse has been seized and the date and time at which it was seized; and

(b) giving details of how contact can be made with the person detaining the horse.”

It is strange that I should have views on both this Bill and the one that preceded it. I entirely support this Bill, which does something necessary and helpful.

Amendment 1 clarifies the definition of “horse” in clause 1. I just suggest that it should, as the Welsh equivalent Bill does, make it clear that the word “horse” includes ponies and jennets.

I am not trying to be clever or unhelpful, but I do think that the normal definition of a horse would include anything that was of the same species as a horse—that is to say equus ferus caballus—which ponies and jennets are. Donkeys are separately identified because they are not the same species. They are equines, but they are equus africanus asinus, if I remember correctly, and therefore they have to be defined separately, but—

Order. I very rarely pick up on points like this, but the hon. Gentleman must address the Chair—or must look as if he is just occasionally addressing the Chair—and not have his back to the House.

Please forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not been in the House for very long, as you know, and that is a mistake that incomers make. I do apologise. I also sound like I am lecturing the right hon. Gentleman, but I am not trying to; I am simply saying that I think his amendment is otiose.

My hon. Friend is almost certainly right. It is clear from his intervention that he knows far more about this matter than I do—he probably knows far more about most matters than I do.

The right hon. Gentleman has said the legislation is already in place in Wales, and, as a Welsh MP, may I say that I think it is important to make the distinction, as the vast majority of animals left on these fields are ponies?

As it happens, until a couple of years ago we had, in the meadow next to our house, a pony—that sadly died at the age of 35, which I think is going it some, frankly. It was as a result of the knowledge of our own pony, who was called Porky, that I moved this amendment. If this amendment is unnecessary and we do not need to describe what a horse is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) suggests, I will move on to my second and third amendments.

I think these two amendments are more important. I think they genuinely address what may be a problem with the Bill, but my hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt set me right on that when he comes to speak. I think the problem may be this: the detention of a horse under the provisions of this Bill could be continued beyond 24 hours if the person who detains the horse does not know to whom the horse belongs, provided he tells the police about it, but it could not be continued beyond 24 hours if the person who detains the horse does know to whom the horse belongs, but does not know how to get hold of him. These amendments are intended—despite my own, no doubt, cack-handed drafting—to deal with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome will no doubt tell us whether they achieve the clarity and helpfulness I intend to achieve, but that is the purpose behind them.

One can only speculate as to why the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) has brought forward this group of amendments. However, Opposition Members would not wish them—or amendment 4, which is to be debated later—to delay the passage of the Bill, so I will be brief.

Amendment 1 attempts to clarify further the definition of what actually constitutes a horse, and I would encourage the Minister to put on the record later in the debate a full definition and whether, indeed, this covers a jennet or a pony. The term “jennet” is used to describe a Spanish jennet horse. It is, I understand, a fairly new breed registration dedicated to an attempt to recreate the coloured variety of gaited horses that resembles the historical jennet or “Spanish jennet.” It would seem obvious, therefore, that the term “horse” as already used in the Bill would cover a jennet, but I await the Minister’s response.

The term “pony” is used to describe a small equus which, depending on context, can be a horse that is under an approximate or exact height at the withers—usually 14.2 hands, if memory serves, with the hand being 4 inches in imperial measure—or alternatively is a small horse with a specific conformation and temperament. Again, the Minister may wish to elaborate.

Amendment 2 would require the detaining authority to inform the owner of the horse, if the identity of such a person is known, at an address within the UK. Amendment 3 allows for such notice to be given by way of a written communication, delivered by first-class post. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, however, the vast majority of horses it deals with do not have any identifiable owners. Clause 3 already states that when a horse has been detained the detaining authority should give notice of the detention to an officer in charge of a police station and, if known, the person to whom that horse belongs.

These amendments appear well intentioned, but they are potentially cumbersome. The right hon. Gentleman who has moved them has elaborated on their intention, but I am afraid has not, to my satisfaction, made a case strong enough to warrant Opposition support. Of course the guidance that emerges from this Bill may well detail good practice, which involves notice being given wherever possible at a specific address and, where it is warranted, this being given by way of first-class post. On that note, I await the Minister’s response.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) for tabling these amendments and asking some important questions about the Bill.

Amendment 1 seeks to add ponies and jennets to the definition of a horse covered by the Bill and, in turn, to the provisions on horses in the Animals Act 1971. It may be helpful quickly to explain how the provisions in the Control of Horses Bill amend the Animals Act 1971. The Bill carves out special arrangements in the 1971 Act for stray and fly-grazing horses and other equidae. Its leaves the measures in the 1971 Act as they apply to other livestock unchanged. The provisions cover a range of equidae. As well as horses, the Bill’s provisions apply to asses, mules and hinnies. These equidae need special mention because, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) pointed out, they are not horses. Each is a different species. Horses are of the equus ferus caballus, and ponies are of the same species, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. It might also be worth clarifying that the legal definition of a donkey is an ass, so they are also covered.

A pony is just a small horse and does not need to be specified, so they are already covered. Similarly, a jennet is a small breed of horse. Thus neither ponies nor jennets need to included in the definition of horse.

For completeness, I should say that I asked a number of questions about the definitions when scrutinising this Bill with officials, and I therefore point out that a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, and a hinny is the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey. That is made clear in the legislation.

I understand the reasoning behind amendments 2 and 3. My right hon. Friend just wants to make it clear that there is a proper process for contacting the owners of a horse, where this is known. Unfortunately, it is not always easy for a person or local authority detaining a horse to identify the owner and then serve them with a notice of detention. Many fly-grazed horses cannot be identified through microchipping, as required by law, and even when a horse can be properly identified, the person detaining it might not be able to access its identification data.

We considered these points and decided that the police should remain the central point of contact for reporting detained or missing horses, and that notice of detention should be registered with the police in any case, even when the person detaining the horse is able to notify the horse’s owner. Under the existing provisions in the Animals Act 1971, the police have systems in place for registering this kind of information, which is often shared with local authorities. Horse owners should therefore contact the police immediately if they are concerned that their horse might have been detained.

The Bill leaves it open to the person detaining a fly-grazing horse to contact the owner directly, if the owner is known to him, but I believe that it would be a backward step to prescribe what form such action should take, such as sending a letter by first-class post, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire suggests. The person might know which caravan the owner lived in, for example, and could go and knock on their door and talk to them. Alternatively, they might know the owner’s e-mail address. It would be wrong to be prescriptive in this regard.

I asked questions about this again when we were considering the Bill, and I want to reassure my right hon. Friend. Clause 3(2) of the Bill states:

“The right to detain the horse ceases at the end of the period of 24 hours”,

and goes on to say that the person detaining the horse must notify the police and the owner, if they know who that is. If the Bill had required notification of the police or the owner, but not both, he might have a stronger case for requiring more clarity. I believe that the requirement to notify both, and to contact the police in any event, will provide sufficient clarity. As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), pointed out, we are keen to get the Bill through and it would be wrong to introduce measures that were inconsistent with the 1971 Act. I therefore hope that, in the light of these clarifications, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire will be able to withdraw his amendment.

It is a pleasure to speak briefly to amendments 1, 2 and 3, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I must also put on record my thanks for his support for the Bill. On amendment 1, the Minister has already set out how a horse is defined for the purposes of the Bill. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), has set out his position on that as well, and I do not need to say more on that.

I should like to speak briefly to amendments 2 and 3. I completely understand the very sensible intentions behind the amendments, but I believe that the police must remain the central point of contact, as the Minister has said. It is also clear that there has to be flexibility in these circumstances. First-class post might be the most appropriate way of notifying an owner in certain circumstances, but it is essential to have flexibility on that decision, and not to specify in statute exactly what should be done. The Minister talked about the time involved, and using first-class post might delay the notification so that it did not arrive within the required four clear days.

I fear that the introduction of detailed specifications of how notifications should be served could unnecessarily delay what should be an immediate process relating to animal welfare. Such delay must be avoided in the interests of all parties involved, not least the fly-grazed horses, in the light of the welfare issues involved. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will not press his amendment to a vote.

I am not entirely convinced that we have dealt fully with the circumstances in which someone might know the owner but not know how to get hold of him. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) will consider this point further when the Bill goes to another place, but in the circumstances, and given the gracious way in which he has dealt with the matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5

Commencement, extent and short title

I beg to move amendment 4, page 4, line 20, leave out “and Wales”.

I have tabled this amendment because I am puzzled. In 2014, the Welsh Assembly passed the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014 to deal with this issue. As this is now a devolved matter, there is no reason why it should not have done so; indeed, there is every reason why it should. Clause 1(1) of this Bill states that

“a local authority in England may detain a horse”,

and the entire Bill seems to apply to England until we get to clause 5(2), which states:

“This Act extends to England and Wales.”

That leaves me wondering what on earth Wales is meant to do with the legislation, and how it can extend to England and Wales. I therefore suggest that we leave out “and Wales”.

I rise again to speak briefly to this amendment. It is not unusual for Bills passing through this place to include Wales in their jurisdiction. My understanding is that Wales is included in the Bill for technical reasons. The Animals Act 1971, which the Bill amends, extends to both countries, and any Bill that amends that Act needs to apply its provisions to both countries. However, because the Welsh Assembly has legislated for fly-grazing separately in the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, the provisions of this Bill will in effect apply only to England. The 1971 Act does not apply to either Scotland or Northern Ireland, so they do not need to be included in the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister reassured the House that the provisions in the Bill will apply in effect only to England. If that is the case, we would not wish to support the amendment.

Amendment 4 seeks to limit the extent of the Bill to England only, and not to England and Wales as currently drafted. I realise that it might be confusing to have a Bill that extends to both England and Wales but has provisions that apply only to England, but I can reassure hon. Members that this is not a mistake. The Bill extends to England and Wales for legal reasons. As the shadow Minister pointed out, the Bill amends the Animals Act 1971, which extends to England and Wales. Because the 1971 Act extends to England and Wales, any Bill that amends it must also apply to England and Wales.

I shall give the shadow Minister the reassurance that he seeks. Although the Bill extends to England and Wales, none of the provisions will apply in Wales. Furthermore, none of the amendments that are made to the Animals Act will apply to Wales. I should also point out that we took soundings from the Welsh Government when considering these matters, to ascertain whether they wanted Wales to come under the scope of this Bill, but the feedback that we received was that because they had introduced their own legislation in this area, they did not want to confuse matters further by extending these provisions to cover Wales. That is why the Bill explicitly excludes Wales. I hope that, in the light of that explanation, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) will not press his amendments to a vote.

Again, it is a privilege to speak to amendment 4. As the Minister rightly says, the Bill extends to England and Wales, not because of a mistake but for legal reasons. Although it extends to England and Wales, none of its provisions will apply to Wales. An important reason for that is what the Welsh Government put in place in 2014 and I pay tribute in this House to the Welsh Government for acting and introducing what became the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. One reason I introduced my Bill was to follow on from that to make sure that this is covered in England, too.

With those wonderful explanations, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is huge privilege to speak on Third Reading. First, I must draw the House’s attention to my declarations in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As hon. Members will be aware, my background is in farming, and it is from a deep affinity for the land and countryside that my interest in this Bill first arose. Thankfully, I have not suffered from the devastating effects of fly-grazing personally, but I have witnessed at first hand the problem it causes farmers, the unfortunate horses themselves and unwitting motorists in my constituency.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting his Bill through to this stage and, indeed, on introducing it? He is a great champion of his constituents, but I can assure him that on this issue not only they but many of my constituents will be grateful. This is a Bill and we are all grateful to him for the way he has steered it through.

I very much thank my hon. Friend for those kind words. I know only too well that not only in his constituency but across our great county of Yorkshire we have areas that suffer greatly from fly-grazing horses and the problems that go with that. The issue does not just affect our great county of Yorkshire—it goes right across the country. Other hon. Members in the Chamber have issues to deal with in their constituencies and counties. That came across loud and clear in Committee, when a lot of hon. Members raised valuable concerns and gave examples of the impact that fly-grazing had had on their constituents and in their area.

I wish to thank all those who have contributed their time and energy to getting this Bill to Third Reading. After some disagreement last year with those who manage the time in this House and seek to control this place—such disagreements can be fatal to such proceedings—few thought this Bill would ever see the light of day, let alone make it to Third Reading, so I must also thank all those who have helped to remove the obstacles to this Bill. I especially wish to thank the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for its support from day one, when I was drawn in the ballot. I am also especially grateful to a large variety of animal welfare charities, including World Horse Welfare, the British Horse Society, HorseWorld, Redwings and Blue Cross. I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that such animal welfare charities set an example to us all in their tireless work to improve the lives of those who have no voice of their own.

My Bill is somewhat unusual as it is also supported by a large variety of rural and countryside organisations, which do not always see eye to eye on some issues with the animal welfare charities I just mentioned. I am also grateful for the support of the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Alliance. All these organisations have worked together on an animal welfare issue that unites them. It is an important issue, which is why I was delighted to introduce my Bill—indeed, it is so important that it unites organisations that are apart on certain issues.

I also wish to thank the original supporters of the Bill, without whose earlier, much-needed support it would never have been possible. I am also grateful to Members from both sides of the House who served in Committee last week, in addition to the Bill’s sponsors. The cross-party support the Bill has received is a fantastic example of how, even in the run-up to what some might say is the most important general election for a decade, those on both sides of this House can look beyond party boundaries and work together in the interests of the common good. I wish to thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for her work. We have enjoyed numerous meetings together to discuss the contents of the Bill. As I said in Committee, I know at first hand of her commitment to the Bill and to animal welfare more broadly. She could not be here today as she had hoped to be, but I wish to thank the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) for attending in her place.

I am also exceptionally grateful for the steadfast support I have received from the Public Bill Office and the Clerks there, to whom I remain greatly indebted, particularly with regard to some of the House’s more detailed procedures. I recommend to anyone wishing to obtain a deeper understanding of the parliamentary process that they undertake a private Member’s Bill—it has certainly been an illuminating education for me. Many Members in the Chamber today already know all about that, because they participate in many Friday sittings and have participated in many private Members’ Bills.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I wish to thank this Minister and Lord de Mauley, and their Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials. I have had the privilege of working closely with them, receiving their full support. That has been transformative for the Bill’s prospects, and I am grateful for all their hard work in this process.

Animal welfare forms the backbone of the Bill, which, in its amended form, will go a long way towards improving the existing legislation on fly-grazing. Our ability to protect horses from a life of neglect on both private and public land will be greatly enhanced. From my numerous meetings with animal welfare charities it has been clear that the existing laws are having a negative impact on everyone, apart from those who seek to abuse animals. Clearly, we need to tackle fly-grazing consistently across the whole of England, on both public and private land, and that is the Bill’s aim. If we do not do that, this mobile problem will continue to move from farm to farm, and from council to council, with no respite in sight for the horses involved.

The problems that animal welfare charities are having to cope with are all too clear. It has been widely reported in the local media that parts of the country are under siege from thousands of fly-grazed horses and their irresponsible owners. That presents a danger to not only the horses, but, sadly, the wider public. In Committee, hon. Members recounted vividly some shocking examples of how abandoned horses have particularly affected their constituencies and constituents. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned in Committee, a horse escaped on to the M25 last week, resulting in the motorway having to be closed for more than an hour. That caused commuters horrendous disruption, but, luckily, a serious accident was averted. However, the horses themselves have not always been so lucky. The RSPCA reported last week that at least five horses being fly-grazed in a field near Leighton Buzzard had all died from contracting the small redworm parasite. The horses were reported to be underfed and severely unkempt. They had not received the proper care and attention they deserved and needed. If they had received such attention, they would have still been alive today.

Furthermore, towards the end of November, the British Transport police reported that 12 horses had been killed near Cambridge. The animals were struck near the Fen road level crossing in Milton by two trains travelling in opposite directions. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was devastated to learn of the horrible tragedy. Four seasoned inspectors attended the scene and said that it was one of the worst things they had ever seen and that they would never forget it. Emergency services, including firefighters, police, paramedics and air ambulance crews attended the collision, which blocked the track in both directions and caused major travel disruptions. A number of minor injuries were sustained, but, thankfully, no passengers were seriously injured.

Unfortunately, fly-grazing has caused a number of problems in my own constituency. Just before Christmas, a dozen horses on council-owned land near Osbaldwick had to be seized by the local authority due to welfare concerns. In September, an accident on the A64 between York and Scarborough involved two abandoned horses and a cement mixer. One horse died immediately, and a second had to be put down soon afterwards. It is my understanding that the owner of the horses has yet to come forward to claim responsibility for the appalling lack of care.

Last November, three abandoned ponies in an extremely poor condition of health were rescued by officers. They were categorised as emaciated by the attending vet. Although the RSPCA was advised on the identity of the owner, it was unable to prove ownership, so the case did not proceed to court. Thankfully, the ponies in question have been safely rehomed.

A further case from my postbag involved a horse being hit by passing traffic on the A1079 from York to Hull. When the owner learned of the accident, he did not come to the horse’s aid, but callously decided to leave the animal in a terrible state and in pain in a nearby field without any veterinary attention.

Such examples clearly make the case for why we need the Bill to be on the statute book as soon as practically possible, so that such abuse can be swiftly dealt with. Indeed, the Bill does not only seek to remedy the current weaknesses of the law, but has at stake a wider point of principle. As I said on Second Reading, no one should be above the law. There are those who attempt to frustrate the laws by which everyone else lives. Abandoning a horse to a life of neglect has no place in civil society and we should not turn a blind eye while people’s land is seized without their permission purely so an owner can avoid the responsibility of caring for their own horse.

It is impossible to know how many horses have been abandoned across the country, but animal charities estimate that at least 3,000 horses are being fly-grazed in England alone. The problem is acute and expensive for landowners, local authorities, enforcement agencies, welfare charities and, ultimately, taxpayers. The lack of care the horses receive and the intentions of their irresponsible owners are threatening the livelihoods of farmers and landowners, creating significant horse welfare problems, depriving people of the use of public spaces and risking the lives of motorists. The current lack of clarity in the legal process to deal with the problems is only making matters worse.

I beg to move, That the House sit in private. Question put forthwith and negatived (Standing Order No. 163).

The current lack of clarity in the legal process only makes matters worse. It has also been pointed out that intimidation and violence are commonly used against charity workers and good Samaritans who try to hold to account the irresponsible owners. Those who have suffered from fly-grazing are all too often powerless to remove horses from their land. Although several pieces of relevant legislation exist, none provides a definitive answer to the growing problem and all contain loopholes. A major stumbling block is the requirement to identify the owner of any horse being fly-grazed unlawfully. However, more than 70% of abandoned horses are not identifiable, which demonstrates the physical scale of the problem.

The main mechanism for dealing with fly-grazing has been the Animals Act 1971. Under the Act, after 14 days landowners may detain horses that stray on to their land and sell them at auction. The legislation was drawn up at a time when animals fetched a good price and not so many horses were being fly-grazed. The Act was not designed for the problem of deliberately fly-grazed horses. There are, therefore, numerous problems with using the Act to deal with this growing issue, which is affecting not only my constituency—the great county of Yorkshire—but areas right across the country. For example, the Act refers to animals straying on to other people’s land, but with fly-grazing we are concerned with animals placed deliberately on someone else’s land without their permission, which is a different matter altogether.

The Act allows animals to be sold at auction, but often the horses have little or no value, and it is commonplace for the owner to buy back the horse at a knock-down price, the horse having been micro-chipped by the person or the local authority responsible for the horse’s initial detention. Thus, the irresponsible horse owner who engages in fly-grazing at the expense of others receives the windfall of a fully vetted and legally compliant horse at little cost. The current law, therefore, has the effect of allowing the abusers of animals to benefit from their actions, leaving local authorities, farmers and taxpayers to pick up the bill.

Welfare charities have argued passionately for a mechanism whereby the horse being fly-grazed can either be rehomed or, in some circumstances, humanely destroyed. Sadly, World Horse Welfare says that rehoming centres are full of unwanted horses. It is therefore essential that the cycle of fly-grazing is brought to an end, before the number of unwanted horses grows out of control.

The loopholes in the current law must be closed, and this Bill will make several small but significant amendments to the 1971 Act in order to make it easier to tackle fly-grazing head on. The Bill gives local authorities and, since it was amended in Committee, landowners and occupiers in England the power to detain a horse on their land when they have a reasonable belief that the horse is there without lawful authority. It is worth noting that the provision can apply to both stray horses and ones deliberately placed there by irresponsible owners. The measure is similar to the powers available to local authorities in Wales under the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, from which I received my inspiration for the Bill. After detaining a horse, the local authority or person must inform the local police within 24 hours of its right to detain the horse, as well as informing the horse owner if their identity is known. Once the police have been informed, the horse may be detained for a total of four working days from when it was first detained.

If after that time, the horse has not been claimed, the horse may be disposed of by selling it, arranging for it to be humanely destroyed or by gifting it to an animal welfare sanctuary. After four working days, the owner of the horse will no longer be able to claim it back, crucially breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect. Where a horse is sold and money is left over from the sale, any excess money, once the costs of looking after it have been deducted, can be claimed back by the owner.

As I have previously explained, it is essential that the Bill applies not just to public land but to private land and I am delighted that it has since been amended to include all land in England. It would be ridiculous for private land to become the unintended refuge for suffering and abandoned horses with landowners ill-equipped to alleviate the animals’ suffering.

It has been made clear that fly-grazing affects a great number of people in many ways and Members have given vivid examples on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report of how it affects their constituents and constituencies. In almost every case, an innocent, law-abiding person is either endangered or taken advantage of. It is my sincere hope that this will be the last winter in which abandoned horses are left outside in the cold without the protection of local authorities and private landowners acting in the animal’s best interest. I believe that the Bill will go a long way towards tackling the scourge of fly-grazing and I commend it to the House.

I welcome the Bill and warmly congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), who has achieved two things that I have been unable to achieve. First, as a private Member he has steered a Bill to this stage in proceedings, something I have never achieved in 18 years in this House. If the Bill passes through the other place, he will also, as a private Member, have put in place legislation on antisocial behaviour which it is an open secret I would have liked to implement when I was a Home Office Minister. This is a signal victory for common sense in dealing with an issue that is a real problem in many of our constituencies.

I first came across the difficulty some years ago when a constituent came to see me in my advice surgery. She was in despair because she had horses on her land and there was absolutely nothing she could do to remove them—she had looked into it. She felt that the law was simply inadequate to meet her needs. Subsequently, I heard of many cases, particularly in the Frome area of my constituency and the parish of Selwood. I had a very valuable meeting with Selwood parish council, the members of which were very exercised by the issue. Anecdotally, I understand that one gentleman in my area owns up to 80 horses but no land. They are all grazed on other people’s land, and that is theft; it is antisocial behaviour, irresponsible and a dereliction of the duty of care for those horses. I think that the Bill will go some way towards rectifying the situation.

Of course, this is not just about rural areas, as the hon. Member for York Outer correctly says. It applies across the entire country and in some areas it seems to be a particular scourge. I remember having a very valuable meeting with the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who described the difficulties in his area and his feeling that something along the lines of this Bill would be helpful.

The hon. Member for York Outer has done a great service to many landowners around the country in introducing this legislation. Does it do everything that is required? No, of course it does not. It makes a contribution and certainly improves the situation in legislation, but there is still a significant issue that I have never found a way of successfully addressing: the question of strict liability on the part of the landowner for animals on their land. It seems completely wrong to me to have insult added to injury by not only having a horse one does not want on one’s land but being responsible for any actions of that horse and for its welfare. For somebody who does not want the animal, that is a preposterous position to be in, but that is perhaps for another day.

I hope, assuming that local authorities and police take it seriously and use the provisions within it, that the Bill will make it easier to secure the early removal of horses that are illegally grazing on land that is not in the ownership or possession of the owner of the horse. It will make it easier for horses to be removed even where it is difficult to know exactly who owns them, which is part of the problem. Such horses are often not chipped, so it is difficult to establish ownership, and that is one way in which people deliberately evade their responsibility.

The Bill is warmly to be welcomed and I hope that it will have a swift passage in the other place. If that is the case, as one hopes that it will be, the hon. Member for York Outer will have done a great service to many people around the country who are looking to this House to address what they see as a significant issue. He has done that, so well done.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on his success in the ballot—I think he came eighth, and he has done better than some who came higher up in piloting his Bill through to Third Reading. I thank him on behalf of my constituents on the western side of the Pennines; I thank him from Lancashire, as he represents a Yorkshire constituency. I recall one case in which a constituent found it necessary to complain and bring to my attention an apparently abandoned horse. The Bill will benefit not only horses but landowners.

Had the Bill not been amended in Committee, I would have found it more difficult to support. It could have led to a ridiculous situation in which private landowners found the problem increasing rather than decreasing, as it would have had the unintended consequence of making those who wanted to fly-graze or abandon their horse to do so on private rather than public land. The Bill would not have stopped them, so I am pleased that that quite obvious loophole was closed in Committee. I hope that the Bill will receive a fair wind in the other place and that there will be sufficient time for it to find its way on to the statute book before the Dissolution of Parliament.

I, too, heartily congratulate the hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). This is an important Bill for many people in this country concerning a matter that needed to be tackled and required attention. The serious issue of horses illegally grazing has vexed many individuals and organisations for a long time and has been getting worse year by year. I hope that the passage of this Bill will ensure that those problems are brought to an end for many people.

Recently, the RSPCA, the Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings produced a damning report that has informed much of the thinking on this Bill. That report, “Left on the verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales” catalogued appalling neglect and animal welfare abuses all over the country, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Although it is important to stress that there are many good horse and pony owners who behave responsibly, a minority do not care about animal welfare and frequently put the welfare of their horses and ponies at risk by dumping them on other people’s land, allowing damage and other dangers to occur as a result of their irresponsible actions.

There is no doubt that irresponsible breeding and a significant drop in the value of horses has provided an inauspicious context to the development of the fly-grazing problem. The issue is also not helped by the complexity of outdated legislation, which allowed unscrupulous owners to dance around the authorities and enforcement agencies, often at great expense to taxpayers.

The problem is also expensive; the RSPCA alone spends in the region of £2.95 million a year on horses that it has taken into care. That figure excludes the veterinary costs. Many of the animals illegally fly-grazed are still not cared for and often in very poor health. The Opposition are convinced that it is vital that the issue be dealt with—not just to help communities plagued by the problem, but because we need to tackle the welfare issues arising from the illegal activity, as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

As an Opposition, we have for some time been calling on the Government to act on this issue and we are pleased that the Bill is making progress through its legislative stages. We also welcome the Government’s U-turn on the inclusion of private land; one can only speculate about why private land was not included from the start, but I acknowledge that the problem has been resolved and the Opposition are thankful for that.

We have been consistent in our approach to this legislation and have co-operated fully with the Government because we recognise its importance. We want the Bill to complete its Commons stages and progress to the other place—if it fails to reach the statute book, that will not be because we have stood in its way. However, if the Bill does fail, I assure the House that, if we form the next Government, we will be determined to introduce measures that ease the burden imposed on communities and local authorities by illegal fly-grazers. On that note, I shall conclude as I do not want to jeopardise the progress of this important Bill.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on getting his private Member’s Bill to this stage. I have been in the House for only five years, but I did have a private Member’s Bill in the first year of the Parliament. It was not successful, I am afraid; it did not even get its Second Reading, let alone progress to Committee, Report and Third Reading.

The Bill addresses a serious and growing problem. There is a charity called the Flicka Foundation in my constituency; it is a donkey sanctuary, which also looks after some ponies. Its representatives tell me that in recent years they have seen a huge increase in the number of abandoned donkeys and ponies that they are asked to re-home. Other equine charities say the same.

There are a number of key implications to the situation: the impact on the welfare of the ponies; the hazard on the roads—as my hon. Friend pointed out, accidents can be caused; and the huge burden on landowners unable to do anything about the abandoned ponies they have been left with. Sometimes, people game the system. People have abandoned their ponies on somebody’s land for up to 14 days and then, just before the order to seize the horse, they move it on to somebody else’s field and start the whole process again. As my hon. Friend said, there have even been instances of people abandoning their horses without a microchip and buying them back at auction after the landowner has been required by law to have them microchipped.

The problem is serious. My hon. Friend has championed the issue for many years; his first parliamentary debate on the matter was in 2012. A number of other hon. Members have also been consistent champions. The first time I debated the issue was in Westminster Hall in November 2013, a debate led by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot). I have received a great deal of correspondence from concerned colleagues on this issue.

Throughout the debate, there has been a suggestion that we should adopt an approach similar to that implemented in Wales in 2014. It is worth pointing out that there has always been a range of other legislative tools in the box. I will reflect on those, as I highlighted them in earlier debates. First, there is the Animals Act 1971, which this Bill seeks to amend. There is also the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Highways Act 1980, which deals with stray livestock. The new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 could also be used in this area.

All that said, as the debate progressed, particularly after the 2013 Westminster Hall debate, we conceded that a number of important things had changed. First, the requirement to microchip horses had increased the costs and burdens on landowners who took remedial action when horses were abandoned on their land. Secondly, the original legislation restricted disposal methods to sale at auction. When the law was originally put in place in 1971, people could expect abandoned ponies to fetch reasonable prices at auction. That is not the case now. As the shadow Minister pointed out, there has been a period of irresponsible breeding of cob ponies, which have very little value so landowners are unable to recover their costs in auctions. We recognised that two important things had changed since the 1971 Act and that there was a gap that we should seek to address, borrowing elements from the approach adopted in Wales.

The Bill creates new options for disposal, including the ability to gift abandoned ponies and horses to charities; that is not possible under the existing legislation—first, they have to go through an auction process. For the worst cases, the Bill creates the possibility for euthanasia. Nobody wants that to happen, but welfare charities would point out that having a large number of ponies abandoned on verges and starving is not good from a welfare point of view. Sometimes in those cases, euthanasia can be the right approach.

The second and most important feature of the Bill is that it condenses the time scale of the detention period from 14 days to four working days. It also reduces the notice period from three days to 24 hours. When withdrawing his amendments, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire said that he hoped I would give further thought to his points, which he did not feel had been adequately covered. I owe it to him to have another go at persuading him that we do not need to change things as he suggested.

We think four working days a reasonable period for detention, and sufficient to enable people to report the situation to the police, because the animal welfare codes for looking after horses are clear: people should attend to their horses—checking that they are okay—at least once a day. If somebody has not reported a missing horse to the police within four days, that is a pretty good indicator that that horse is not being cared for correctly. In normal circumstances, we would expect somebody to realise within 24 hours that their pony had gone missing—escaped out of a field or jumped the hedge. They would then immediately report that to the police. Having a notice period of 24 hours and a detention period of four working days provides ample time for the situation to be picked up and for legitimate owners who have legitimately lost their horses to be protected.

I accept my hon. Friend’s point, but if he thinks it is sufficient to give notice to the police, the Government ought to consider dropping the point that if the person detaining the horse knows the person to whom the horse belongs, notice should be given to that person as well. If notifying the police is sufficient, that subsection should be dropped.

We put the subsection there as an additional mechanism. I do not see a reason not to have it. If the person detaining the horse feels they know the owner, they can tell them directly and quickly, but that does not remove the requirement for them to tell the police in any event. The starting point is that if they decide to detain a horse, in any event they must notify the police. If they happen to know the owner of the horse, it is reasonable to put on them a due diligence requirement to notify the owner at the same time.

In Committee we broadened the scope of the Bill so that it covered detention of horses not just on public land, but on private land. As the hon. Member for York Outer pointed out, that is important. If the scope had been limited to public land, as is the case in Wales, there is a danger that the problem would merely be displaced to private land. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing properly. The Animals Act 1971 deals with both public and private land and we concluded that it was essential that the Bill should be consistent with that Act and cover private land as well.

In conclusion, I am very pleased that my hon. Friend’s Bill has reached this stage. The Government fully support it and hope that we can get it through in this Session, before the break-up of Parliament, reassured that we have full support from the Opposition Benches and cross-party support. I wish the Bill a fair wind as it goes through proceedings in the other place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.