Skip to main content

Animal Welfare: Horses

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress they have made in preventing the transport of live horses for slaughter across national boundaries.

My Lords, Defra has no record, over many years, of horses being exported for slaughter from Great Britain. A ban would still be illegal under EU free-trade rules but government policy is to prefer meat exports rather than live exports for slaughter. Regulation 1 of 2005 also introduced new EU welfare measures which came into force last January, including measures for horses that we had put to the Commission with the support of welfare organisations. The Commission will review the regulations in 2009 and consider further welfare-in-transport measures.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will the Government take further action to deal with this unnecessary and abhorrent trade? The latest evidence makes it absolutely clear that the existing European regulations are not being enforced. Thousands of horses are being transported hundreds of miles in appalling conditions, with mares and stallions herded together, with no rest and no water. As to the review to which the Minister referred, the European Commission is clearly sympathetic and has brought forward the review from 2011 to 2009. Will he make strong representations in that review to ensure that the situation is improved from its present dreadful state?

My Lords, let me make it absolutely clear that the thousands of horses mentioned by the noble Lord are not from this country. We have gone back through the records and no one can find anything for a decade. About 12,000 horses are exported for many reasons, including for shows and trade. The UK Government and welfare organisations are encouraging individual citizens to pile in letters on horse movements across Europe to Commissioner Kyprianou so that when the welfare review comes in 2009—as the noble Lord said, it has been brought forward—we can stop this vile, unnecessary trade across most of Europe. As the noble Lord knows from previously raising the matter in the House, countries in southern Europe are the worst offenders. They seem to take no account of the welfare conditions needed for horses being transported for slaughter.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the owner of a Welsh mountain pony wants to sell it, the cost to register it will be £22? Many ponies sell for £5 to £15 a head, which is less than the registration fee. If all horses were to be banned from crossing national boundaries, the Minister must realise that there would be no market left for the type of animal that I am referring to. What would the Minister do in that situation to ensure that they were protected in a welfare sense?

My Lords, I have gone back and checked my records on this. The noble Lord asked exactly the same question on Tuesday 4 May 2004 when he followed the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, who had asked the initial Question. I am tempted to read out the answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Basically, the point is not relevant to the Question—Welsh ponies are not being exported from Great Britain for slaughter; that does not happen. We have no record of it happening; no licences have been applied for or, indeed, issued. Anyway, the issues of normal trade go well outside this question.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that I have the greatest sympathy for him answering this Question? It is my great failure that I never managed to do anything about this vile trade. It has spread further than Europe; horses came in from South America via Italy. I had a lunch here for the German Minister for agriculture, on bananas and horses, at the end of which he said yes to bananas but, “No, we will not do anything about the horses”.

My Lords, I take on board what the noble Baroness said; this is a trade. It is a cultural issue as well. For most residents of this country, the horse is a companion animal rather than a food production animal—it is as simple as that. There is no great measure of whether they travel well or not. Fewer than 4,000 horses are slaughtered in this country, and most of those are for pet food. The reality is that we have to do what we can to improve the trade and the transport welfare arrangements. While the trade is legal, there is no reason why the welfare conditions should not be improved and more hurdles erected that will make people think, “It’s not worth continuing this trade because we’ve got to look after the horses so well”.

My Lords, a further threat to equine health and welfare comes from African horse sickness, which is transmitted by the same midge that has brought us bluetongue. Will the Minister confirm that, should an outbreak occur somewhere in Europe, live exports from that country will immediately be banned? Are there plans to include contiguous countries in that sort of ban?

My Lords, I will write to the noble Lord. I would have needed notice to give him those details. We are continually on the lookout for that disease among the horse population. We have had one or two incidents in the past couple of months in which we thought we might have had it, but laboratory tests have turned out to be negative. I cannot say at present whether there would be a ban from the countries concerned. That does not even occur with animals but, as noble Lords may find out from the next Question, far fewer farmers are now importing sheep and cattle from Germany because they realise the sense of that.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a more serious problem with more European countries coming into the European Union, such as Romania, because they are exporting horses?

My Lords, there is a trade within Europe, particularly the new countries and the southern European countries, of horses for slaughter for food consumption, and the welfare conditions are nowhere near as good as we would wish. That is why we want to work through the EU so we can get scrupulous and vigorous implementation of the regulations. As I said, they were improved by Regulation 1 in 2005, which came into force last year, and are due for review in 2009. In the review of those regulations, we intend to do what we can with the welfare organisations to improve the welfare conditions of horses during transport.