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Horses and Ponies (Live Export)

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 11 March 2015

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about improving and enforcing the arrangements for the regulation of the export of live British horses and ponies from the United Kingdom; to require the Secretary of State to commission and publish a study of the effectiveness of such arrangements, including their efficacy in distinguishing between the transportation of live horses and ponies for sports and those for meat; and for connected purposes.

The Bill would require the Animal and Plant Health Agency to take full responsibility for enforcement of horse health and welfare laws at British ports. It would require them to use the Government Agency Intelligence Network to involve Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency and other authorities to crack down on the illegal trafficking of tens of thousands of British horses, ponies and donkeys each year.

The UK can be proud of its laws that protect the welfare of every one of our country’s 1 million equines, including protecting them from indiscriminate export for slaughter. Indeed, if I want to export a horse legally I must complete various papers and declarations citing the purpose of export, the destination address, the veterinary certification that I have obtained stating that the horse is in good health, and details of the horse passport and microchip numbers. Ponies must also be above a certain value—at least £145, depending on size—if they are to be eligible for export. One might think that the information declared in these export applications would be occasionally checked and the destination address validated to ensure it exists. Sadly, it seems that this simply does not happen.

One might think that, at the very least, the health certification of animals leaving or entering our country would be checked by the APHA at our ports, but that does not happen. One might also think that occasional checks are made to ensure that the horses listed in the export declaration are the ones on the given lorry, but that does not happen, either. One might think that occasional checks would be made to ascertain the transported animal’s welfare, as advised by the European animal transport regulation, but that does not happen, either. In fact, horses and ponies can effectively be shipped anywhere, for any purpose, in any condition, despite our laws, which are meant to protect them.

For instance, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that there have been no applications to export horses for slaughter for very many years. However, World Horse Welfare, which I thank for its help in preparing the Bill, has clear evidence that many horses and ponies exported under the pretence of sport or leisure are actually taken directly to addresses associated with the meat trade, including markets on the continent where slaughter buyers are present. We are not talking about a few dozen horses slipping through the net; we are talking about tens of thousands of horses and ponies each year.

For example, over just one weekend of monitoring in 2013, World Horse Welfare saw 51 shipments exported from Dover to France and 41 shipments imported, on vehicles taking between two and 22 horses. Not a single check was observed being carried out by the APHA. It is no secret that these low-value horses and ponies are probably being exported with fraudulent identification documents, thereby allowing them to be entered into the meat trade on the continent. Without proper identification, these horses could not be considered safe to enter the food chain, but European abattoirs are much more likely to be fooled by false UK paperwork than our own abattoirs here in the UK. We are watching this happen and, it appears, doing nothing. I am afraid that this is exactly the kind of complacency that contributed to the horsemeat scandal. Horses, unlike other livestock, are relatively unregulated, so trafficking in them is easy to get away with.

Organised criminals are also exploiting the fact that horseboxes can sometimes travel in and out of Britain without a single check or search. Imagine the tax revenue we are losing by letting this trade flourish under the radar, never mind the value of the proceeds from crime. The case of a horse dealer from Northern Ireland, caught smuggling nearly 25 kg of cannabis worth nearly £250,000 in his horsebox, is just one example of the kind of trade we are dealing with. The charity World Horse Welfare estimates that a lorry load of 20 horses could be worth anything from £5,000 to £10,000 at the meat markets, and that trafficking 10,000 horses per year would fetch criminals £2 million to £5 million.

There no enforcement because there is no longer a workable line of responsibility or, it appears, the effective resources to enforce the laws. Instead, we seem to have a dysfunctional system where responsibility appears to be shunted between DEFRA, the APHA and local authorities. As the competent authority, DEFRA is responsible for the enforcement of the laws governing the welfare, transport and trade of animals. However, it has delegated that duty across different agencies. The APHA is clear that it does not enforce those laws. That is a job for local authorities through trading standards or other agencies, but trading standards will not consider enforcement unless there have been reported breaches in compliance. Even then, it must meet its public interest and proportionality tests. As the APHA does not have an intelligence capability, it can only act on specific intelligence. Without intelligence, the APHA is reliant on assessing the declared information of compliant individuals, which does nothing to identify or assess the non-compliant trade. Effectively, therefore, we have no enforcement whatsoever and criminals will continue to profit from horse suffering.

My Bill would, I hope, change that. First, it would require the Secretary of State to commission and publish a study of the effectiveness of the current enforcement in horse exports. Secondly, DEFRA would make the APHA the enforcement authority for all equine exports and imports, including health, welfare and documentation. That streamlining of enforcement would be effective and simple to implement. A similar scheme was in place some years ago when checks at our ports were carried out by the State Veterinary Service before the current arrangements were put in place.

Penalties for breaches would be increased and the maximum imposed to serve as a deterrent. The penalties imposed for breaches of welfare-in-transit laws are usually insignificant—cautions or brief suspensions—despite the courts having the option of fines of up to £5,000 per animal. Penalties for breaches of other laws, such as the use of false horse passports or vehicle violations, are also relatively small and are therefore also too often not considered worth the time of local authorities. However, if it follows the national intelligence model the APHA could target prolific offenders collectively and significant penalties could be imposed through the courts, thus delivering much-needed revenue to the Government, never mind what tax officials and the criminal enforcement agencies might be able to recoup from the proceeds of these traffickers’ crimes.

My Bill would also require the APHA to put in place an effective collaborative framework to gather, assess, disseminate and act on intelligence regarding equine health, welfare and documentation irregularities as well as suspicious patterns in the trade. The APHA claims that it already conducts intelligence-led enforcement but it has no effective system to hold, analyse or act on that intelligence. Non-governmental organisations such as World Horse Welfare have extensive intelligence that they share with Government agencies and are keen to share with the APHA. Many NGOs are ready and willing to do all they can to help.

Finally, my Bill would require greater transparency and therefore accountability for the APHA by publishing enforcement actions and suspensions, as happens with vehicles through traffic commissioners and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency. I hope that the House will support the Bill so that we can better protect our horses, stop this criminal trade and ensure that the Government receive their due revenues.

Question put and agreed to.


That Gregory Barker, Mrs Anne Main, Zac Goldsmith, Sir John Randall, Caroline Nokes, Jim Fitzpatrick, Simon Kirby, Joan Walley, Michael Fabricant, Charlie Elphicke, Andrew Rosindell and Mr Shaun Woodward present the Bill.

Gregory Barker accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March and to be printed (Bill 188).