Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am very glad and indeed fortunate to have the opportunity to open a debate on issues related to the welfare and transportation of horses in the European Union. In doing so I should declare an interest, as my daughter is an equine veterinary surgeon. It is pleasant to introduce a debate on a European matter that does not involve reference to the eurozone and the various controversies associated with it, on which I have spoken on a number of occasions recently, but it is also true that this debate is unusual and perhaps can be summed up by a quotation in the excellent House of Lords Library note that was prepared for this occasion. Under the heading “Overview”, it states:
“There is a special relationship between most British people and horses. We do not see them as farm livestock”.
However, our views are not shared by all other countries. Indeed, EU law regards horses in the same way as farmed animals.
Much of what we have to discuss today is concerned with how the European Union could be useful in ensuring that everything is done to make sure that animal welfare, in particular the welfare of horses, is maintained effectively. For almost a decade, I have been concerned with the suffering caused by the international trade in live horses for slaughter. As noble Lords may know, this mostly takes place between Poland and other countries in eastern Europe, Italy, and to some extent Spain. The charity World Horse Welfare has been at the forefront of campaigning on these issues.
Ideally this trade should cease altogether so that horses are slaughtered in their country of origin and then exported frozen or in some other form as meat. That would eliminate completely the problems that I and many other noble Lords are concerned about. However, for various commercial reasons that is not likely to happen—not least, I should say in passing, so far as the trade with Italy is concerned, where the motivation for carrying on the trade as it is arises from the fact that the horses, which are imported for slaughter, are apparently then presented as fresh Italian meat. One would hope that my noble friend might consider making representations to the Italian Government with a view to stopping what is in effect a fraud being perpetrated on the people of Italy, because they are consuming the product.
This issue has been raised in a number of different ways, in particular on the question of whether there should be an amendment to the European law on this subject. In the forefront of all these is the problem that, as evidence from World Horse Welfare and others shows, the animals are transported in the most appalling conditions that do not conform to what is set out in the regulations. Large and small horses or mares and stallions may be put together with little headroom and inadequate water for the journey that they have to undertake.
Perhaps most important is the question of why there is no limit on journey times. Animals can be transported from Poland to the heel of Italy without any limit being imposed on the length of the journey. In response to an Oral Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dear, a few days ago, my noble friend the Minister said that he would press for a change in the regulations on journey times. When he winds up the debate, perhaps he can tell us to what extent he has managed to make progress in that respect. It is the crucial matter at the moment, quite apart from the other particular issues that I have mentioned.
The second problem is the question of enforcement. When I raised this matter in a debate held in May 2008 in the Moses Room, my understanding was that enforcement was the responsibility of local authorities. This is an international trade, so there is no reason why any local authority should be particularly concerned about how horses pass through its area. Perhaps the Minister could say whether that is still the case and, if so, whether something could not be done to put in place a more effective system of enforcement.
All the evidence suggests that the regulations are not being enforced properly. Whatever the terms of the regulations may be, if they are not enforced they will not help the animals who are travelling in these very bad conditions. The proposal on journey times has been endorsed by the European Food Safety Authority. This has been taken into account by the Commission, but we have still not had an assurance that the regulations will be changed to deal with the recommendations put forward by that authority. No doubt negotiations will continue, but perhaps my noble friend could tell us how he sees the next stage in the campaign to try to prevent these abuses developing.
That covers the first point about which I have been concerned for a long time. However, when the previous debate took place, and when I have raised the issue by way of Parliamentary Questions and so on, I was not fully aware of a separate set of problems that are different in nature but of equal severity. They relate to the tripartite agreement that was designed to allow the free transportation of thoroughbred and competition horses between the UK, Ireland and France without the need for health certification. This is entirely admirable because these are extremely valuable animals. I imagine that the transportations are conducted with a degree of luxury, which is in total contrast to the poor animals I referred to a moment ago. It is good that the practice should continue.
However, as I understand it, in 2005 the agreement was extended to allow the free transportation not only of high-value horses but of horses of low value, which can now circulate around these countries unchecked and unmonitored. The market has been growing as a result of the overbreeding of horses both in the UK and on the continent. Animal welfare charities are aware of cases where these horses are being moved from place to place, including into and out of the UK, with no official record of those movements, making them virtually untraceable and rendering any disease control measures difficult. Apparently the European Union law on routine port inspections of horses entering and leaving the UK allows for regular checks only in exceptional circumstances. These horses are now going in and out with no checks being made for diseases.
This is an extremely dangerous situation. We are all aware of the case in 2010 of a horse being imported into this country from Romania, where there was an outbreak of equine infectious anaemia. It is a notifiable disease and the animal was slaughtered in due course. If the tripartite agreement is not amended so that it reverts to its original form, there is a serious risk that infection will enter this country and spread through our livestock, resulting in horses having to be slaughtered—no doubt to the great distress of their owners.
This is something that should be preventable. I would be glad to know whether my noble friend has taken the point fully on board, and I will seek to negotiate the tripartite agreement, maintaining its original intention while ensuring that the risk of disease spreading to this country from elsewhere in the European Union is reduced. For example, imports can come in from France although the horses concerned might have originated somewhere in eastern Europe, where there are disease problems. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to all these arguments and I hope that he will be able to take positive action on the issue.
I believe that both the previous and present Governments are sympathetic to these arguments, so I hope that we can encourage the Government to take positive action and to press forward in negotiations in the European Union to protect the position of horses. This relates both to the very bad conditions in which those unfortunate animals are being shipped around the UK—my noble friend referred to it the other day as a disgusting trade—and to taking adequate steps to ensure that there is no spread of disease that would have very serious implications for the UK trade generally, which I gather amounts to some £3 billion. We are fortunate to have this debate and I am glad to see that a number of noble Lords are taking part. I hope this will lead to further progress in dealing with these problems, which are important for the economy of the country as well as of concern to anyone with an interest in animal welfare. I beg to move.
My Lords, I first declare a personal interest as the president of the Horse Trust and the chairman of the All-Party Group for the Horse. I am also a member of the Humane Slaughter Association. Secondly, and most importantly, I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on securing this debate which is particularly timely in relation to the Commission, for reasons I will come to.
At the age of 11, I came across a leaflet written by Ada Cole, the remarkable woman who founded the charity which is now called World Horse Welfare. It was about the export of live horses from Ireland, taken by sea for slaughter on the continent. There was one photograph which I can still remember in every detail. It was of a carthorse with a kind eye and a crooked white blaze, barely able to lift its head from the position in which it had collapsed on the dockside in Antwerp. It looked totally exhausted and a picture of misery. After, no doubt, a lifetime of work, its last days should not have been spent at sea in terrible conditions. The caption beneath that picture, which I have never forgotten to this day read, “A victim of man’s greed”.
That terrible trade in old and unwanted horses from Ireland to France and Belgium by sea has gone. It was killed, in part, by public outcry when, on one occasion, some 12 dead horses, which had collapsed during the journey and been thrown overboard, were washed up on a genteel English seaside beach. The fact remains that, after 50 years of so-called progress, some 65,000 horses still make long, gruelling and almost wholly unnecessary journeys to their death within the European Union each year, with the sanction of the Commission which is frightened of restraining trade. About 15 years ago, we had a debate on this subject and I can still remember one speech from that evening. It was made by Lord Slynn of Hadley, no longer with us, who described his own experience of stopping at a continental motorway service station and looking through the vents of a huge lorry standing in the car park. It was crammed with horses, some visibly injured, all utterly exhausted, standing in total silence. They had, he found, been on the lorry like that for two days and had two more to go before arriving at their eventual destination for slaughter in southern Italy.
There has been progress, but it has been painfully slow and inadequate to prevent what is a wholly unnecessary suffering. I have recently visited Transylvania—part of Romania—where tractors are still a rarity and the work is done, as it was 150 years ago, by horse-drawn vehicles. The population of working horses in eastern Europe is still huge yet, despite the fact that no horse there is more than 12 hours from an abattoir in which it could end its days after its working life finishes, many will instead make a journey of two to four days to Italy and Spain in vehicles which are, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said, far removed from the sleek racehorse transporters which we see on our motorways. Those horses are overcrowded, sometimes quite unfit to travel and with wholly inadequate checks made to monitor journey times and rest periods or on whether water is actually provided. Ironically, the comparative cost of slaughter near the point of origin and refrigerated transported is, I am told, very little different from the cost of transporting these animals across a continent in these conditions. The majority of the meat is processed in any event, so arguments about consumers demanding fresh meat are largely irrelevant. In reality, the trade continues in this way because that is how it has been historically and because the Commission lacks the willpower to deal with it.
I cannot help but feel that, if the public in Spain and Italy had the same degree of awareness of what is involved as people in this country, 1 million of whom signed a petition to limit journey times, then demand would drop. This would bring changes more quickly than anything else. There is still no overall limit on the duration of those journeys, despite the recommendation of the European Food Safety Authority, whose research has shown that above all other species—and there are differences between species—horses suffer severe welfare problems in journeys over that time. Our MEPs have shown their support, the European Parliament has supported the change, yet still—and inexplicably—the Commission so far prefers to go down the line of guidance and enforcement of existing regulations, which are currently not adequately enforced.
We are moving into the Cypriot presidency, during which, I suspect, this issue will have very little priority. However, I understand that Ireland takes over immediately after that and I very much hope we will then see adopted the proposal to reduce the journey time for horses to 12 hours, at the very longest. I hope that the Minister can assure us that pressure will be stepped up. I should like to pay tribute to the Minister, Jim Paice, who on 15 June released an intervention calling for the introduction of that limit, as recommended by the EFSA, and it was accepted by the Council of Europe.
The long journeys from eastern to southern Europe are not, however, the only disturbing feature of what is going in relation to horse transport in Europe. For different reasons, we should all be concerned about the shipments of surplus horses, mostly of very low value, currently taking place between Ireland, France and the United Kingdom. During last year, the provision of abattoirs in Northern Ireland was insufficient to meet the demand for the slaughter of unwanted horses that were, having been bought by UK meat dealers, sometimes waiting for up to six weeks in unsatisfactory conditions before there was the capacity to ship them to England for slaughter. The Horse Trust and other charities did what they could to assist the very limited provision of equine welfare over there, but the volume of abandoned and malnourished welfare cases, which is a combination of the recession and chronic overbreeding, means that humane slaughter on the spot was often the only option.
Low-value horses come every week to the UK from Ireland and France, and go out again. They are not routinely checked at ports of entry and, on occasions, are unfit to travel, or they introduce disease, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, pointed out. What on earth was the horse that brought the disease coming here from Romania for? Given that African horse sickness is knocking on our door—with its potentially disastrous consequences for our £3.8 billion equine industry, should it reach us—it is a state of affairs that should worry us all, and every Government.
What this international trade is all about is unclear. There are meat dealers in this country who own literally hundreds of horses of little value, and many of those horses were in a very poor state last winter. It is on a scale that has the equine charities and local authorities that have to deal with the consequences of abandoned horses, fly grazing, welfare cases and escapees, tearing their hair out. These dealers treat the horses as commodities to be sold on, if and when there is a market, but most are poor specimens of little value and no use, save perhaps for meat at some future point. They are the result of indiscriminate breeding, both here and in Ireland. In time of economic difficulty, the numbers are such that all the rescue organisations put together could not begin to take even the worst cases. I have heard reports of local authorities and, indeed, major charities considering that their budgets would not stretch to prosecuting even the worst offenders.
Somehow, people have to be educated, here and in Ireland, not to breed horses unless they have a job for them—and then only to breed from the best—and when they reach the end of the road to do the right thing and put them down at home, not sell them on to the dealer who promises to find a good retirement home. These are the horses that end up on a transporter, being shipped hither and thither to an uncertain end.
What needs to be done right now? The Commission needs to pressed, as it already has been by our Ministers, and pressed and pressed again, until it implements the 12-hour limit. Better guidance and inspections en route, which have been accepted by the Commission, must be implemented. Consumers must be told how the meat has reached their plates in Italy, Spain and parts of France. That is something that I understand World Horse Welfare proposes to do. Horses should bee seen and treated as sentient beings, not mere market commodities. If they are to be eaten at the end, so be it; but it is surely our duty to ensure that in life they are treated with respect and consideration, as should be all our food animals. Despite all the advances and all the talk over the course of my lifetime, too many horses remain the victims of man’s greed.
My Lords, this is one of those debates when you realise that you have jumped into very deep water, so I shall not be paddling far from the banks of my knowledge, which is not extensive. Most of the points that I thought might add to the debate have already been covered by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. Primarily, the enforcement of good welfare in our nation seems to have been driven by public opinion. If other nations and other bodies, primarily in the EU, wish to drive this on, we must do something to engage public opinion within those nations.
I am assuming that even if we are slightly overly sentimental about horses, other nations do not deliberately go out to hurt them. Most people are not naturally cruel. When animals are transported either for the table or for recreational reasons, they should be treated with dignity. As has been pointed out, there could be bureaucratic reasons behind the economic benefit of transporting a horse for a long period of time. A live animal is probably going to be heavier than the meat of a slaughtered animal and I do not know how that stands with fuel prices, et cetera However, if there is a bureaucratic reason, and the meat can be called a product of Italy because it has been slaughtered and finished there, surely there should be some encouragement for consumers in Italy to have an advantage and not be ripped off like this? Can we make sure that the EU project acts together to defend all the consumers of the EU? That would also benefit animal welfare.
Unless we can bring this to the attention of the public across Europe, progress will be painfully slow. Unless we can enforce regulations and guidance about rest periods, feeding and watering, and make sure that national enforcement agencies regard it as a priority, with people shamed and punished when they break the rules, very little is likely to happen. All nations are full of laws which are a low priority for the authorities. What we have to do is draw this to the attention of the bodies within the countries concerned and encourage them to act. The question for our Government is how do we encourage this? How do we encourage those bodies here and in other nations, such as Ireland, where there is a well-developed respect for the horse, to come together with a Europe-wide message? This will mean that local authorities will have an interest, an advantage and a benefit in taking action. We should never lose sight of the law of self-interest. Unless we can convince our fellow members of the EU that there is something to be gained, very little will be done.
So we have the consumer argument, the welfare argument and there is a political advantage. Am I the only person here who has felt that occasionally it would be the right thing to do, and politically advantageous to raise that point? I do not think so. If we act, we will have a chance of applying some levers to the process. If we merely stand back and say it is a bureaucratic process that should be left alone, nothing is going to change. We must get out and make sure that people understand the problem. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has taken a vital step here. We must engage with those outside, and the Government can help by approving this process. It does not have to be active support in the Council of Ministers, though that may be a good thing; it could mean encouraging our public bodies to spread the message wider. That would probably be more beneficial and will lead to quicker results. I hope that the Minister can tell me that this process of building awareness across the whole of Europe is taking place.
My final point is about the tripartite agreement and the movement of animals for leisure purposes. I live in the village of Lambourn, in the valley of the racehorse in Berkshire. I can assure your Lordships that if there was a big problem with the economic movement of racehorses around the country, I would have heard about it, and at the moment I have not heard anything. For anybody who is not familiar with the village of Lambourn, two people out of three are involved in racing. There are not many places where, if you go for a walk in a morning, you have to avoid strings of racehorses on either side of the road going between gallops. I have not heard much about this being a problem, so presumably the racing position is that people are comfortable with it. As for the use of other horses, again I have not heard of problems, but would the Minister look at the danger of disease spreading in? This very valuable industry employing a lot of people deserves protection. Would he assure me that the Government are looking at whether liberalisation has not gone a step too far and is endangering this golden goose?
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Higgins for introducing this debate. Apart from the grim reality of the subject before us, it makes a change that this matter is totally politics-free and we can say what we darned well like. In pursuit of that, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. For many years, she has loved and protected the horse publicly and privately, including through her chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Horse, which she mentioned. I thank her for all that she has done and all that she will do in the future.
I said recently at Question Time that I had tried to do something about this disgusting trade but without success. I know that it is not much to talk about, but I was a steward at Folkestone racecourse for 10 years, and I know Lambourn, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and Newmarket very well. The economic situation of a country affects the horse trade as well as everything else to do with the countryside and nature. I do not believe that Lambourn is as peaceful and happy as perhaps the noble Lord thought it was.
I have two requests to make of the Minister. The first is perhaps unusual. Could he persuade the press to display existing photographs of doomed horses in transit together with as much publicity as possible? I do not believe that the public are aware of this situation, and only the press can help. I believe that photographs exist which would horrify people. Secondly, will the Minister explain—I have written to him—why in Italy and Germany horses are transported live instead of being killed, frozen, cooked and then turned into the sausages so beloved?
I await the answers to my two questions. I realise that the first is somewhat unfair, but I am darned if I cannot try to get all the publicity that I can for this matter. I am sure that noble Lords in this House will agree with me.
My Lords, this debate, which I warmly welcome, follows hard on the heels of a Question that I had the privilege of putting before this House on 14 June, when I tried to concentrate on the transportation of horses. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, to whom I am very grateful for securing this debate, has already addressed that issue in some depth.
Perhaps I might add to what has been said one or two statistics which have been gleaned by the World Horse Welfare charity, of which—I declare an interest— I am a trustee. Examinations by World Horse Welfare of horses leaving Romania en route to Italy showed that 14% were deemed unfit for that journey at the point of departure. By the time they had arrived in Romania, 37% were deemed unfit to have been transported. A separate tranche of investigations by World Horse Welfare, again in Romania, indicated that of horses transported on that terrible route from Romania to Italy, a quarter were showing at the point of arrival in Italy acute injury which had been inflicted or suffered during that journey.
Other evidence on the transportation route might also interest your Lordships. Anyone who knows anything about horses will recognise that an abnormal stance, or weight-shifting, in a horse indicates pain. Behavioural data from one randomly selected shipment two years ago showed that 94% of horses arriving at the point of reception had an abnormal stance and that 83% were weight-shifting. I shall not labour the point because it has already been made, but those statistics might well be of interest to those who read this debate later in Hansard or elsewhere.
The point is that the trade and transportation of horses across Europe is in a mess. I want to concentrate briefly not so much on the transportation issues which have already been very well illuminated by speakers before me but on the tripartite agreement which bears very much on the situation in this country. I will be going over information that has already been given to the House but I will do it in slightly more detail to make sure that the point is not lost. The tripartite agreement was entered into between three countries—the United Kingdom, France and Ireland—to facilitate the trade of high-quality horses, usually race horses but sometimes eventers and show-jumpers, between those three countries. Other countries in Europe would have a stake and a claim to say that they, too, are involved in high-quality horses but we all know that the majority of the racing industry is centred in those three countries, hence the agreement called the tripartite. It was originally intended to allow for the free movement of registered horses—racehorses and others—between those three countries without the need for a health certificate.
In 2005, as we have already been told, the agreement was extended to include all horses being shipped backwards and forwards between those three countries, other than those that were being transported for slaughter. What we now have is the completely unchecked and unmonitored movement of often low-value horses into and out of the UK from France and the Republic of Ireland. I venture to suggest that the problem is probably greater emanating from France, but it is also there in those that come from Ireland. Animals can enter France, as we already know, from anywhere in the EU. They can remain in France for a long or a short time—often for a very short time indeed—and they can then enter the UK unchecked under the original tripartite agreement and no one will know where they have come from or the premises from which they have been moved.
We know that welfare is compromised through this trade because many of these animals, as I have said, are low-value—they are vulnerable horses, ponies and sometimes donkeys—and the transportation, as we have explored in depth, is often quite horrendous. But because they pass from dealer to dealer with no check at all, mixing with other frequently low-value animals, they are constantly exposed to the risk of disease. We already know from the agricultural industry how bluetongue and Schmallenberg virus can affect sheep. We have already heard mentioned in this debate that African horse sickness has reared its head to a tremendous extent in Romania. Romania keeps cropping up in this debate and I really think that the Commission should pay particular attention to that country. In 2010 we had our first outbreak of equine infectious anaemia, EIA. That, too, was traced back to Romania and now, without any pun being intended, the stable doors are being locked there to some extent because restrictions are in place around that country.
The potential spread of disease across borders into this country will affect a UK equine industry which is pushing close to £4 billion a year. It is going to be seriously compromised unless we go back to the original demands and intentions of the tripartite agreement. The information that I have from World Horse Welfare is that there is no reason whatever why we should not revert to the terms of the original agreement. That can be done, I am confidently informed, without undue deference or discussion with the other two countries. As understand it, we simply go back and insist that the terms of the tripartite agreement are adhered to as they were before 2005. Without flogging this particular horse to death—again, no pun intended—I urge the Minister to look closely at the tripartite agreement, what it was intended to deal with in the first place and the tremendous amount of risk that we are now exposed to because of the position now being adopted, and to report back to the House as soon as he can on whether he has been able to ameliorate that position.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Higgins on finding time for this debate. Although it is focused on horses, your Lordships will know that the EU regulations on horses also cover other vertebrates, and I am sure that the House would not want to give the impression that it is not concerned about other vertebrates.
I have the honour to serve on Sub-Committee D, and we have been keeping an eagle eye on the transportation of livestock which are subject to EU regulations. The picture, as has been described, is pretty depressing. There was no doubt that the Danish presidency tried hard, with its five working parties, to get some agreement in the EU, but the EU is hopelessly riven. It is clear that it is completely split between those who want some reform, those who want no reform, and it is equally split among those who want some reform. As your Lordships will know, trying to get anything done in the EU when there is not cohesive agreement is almost impossible.
Therefore, I have huge sympathy for my noble friend on the Front Bench, because although we know what is right, if we do not have the support of the majority of the other member states—as we clearly do not—we can never achieve the high welfare standards necessary. Here, I have to be a little practical. Is the ambition of the highest possible standards to be the enemy of the good? Should not be UK be taking, not the highest position, which is what we might like to get to, but, to get a majority in the EU for change, ought we to drop the level of what we are trying to achieve? I know that the Government have been very keen to focus on the young stock that have been travelling. That is hugely important, and the committee supported the Government on that but, overall, if we are to make progress—with a future presidency, we might—perhaps we ought not to try to achieve the ultimate but to work to get a majority.
The EU regulations refer to,
“vertebrate animals transported in connection with an economic activity”.
Does my noble friend have any information on what animals are transported in what is not an economic activity? That might be useful to know. The EU prepared a paper in November. In one paragraph, which is a comparison of the quality of animal welfare during transport before and after the application of the regulation, it claims that,
“animal transport on long journeys has improved”,
but qualifies that by saying that,
“no firm conclusions can be established”.
How can the EU Commission possibly say that if there is no firm evidence? It is very good to give yourself a pat on the back, but that if there is no evidence to do so, you had better be a bit careful.
Turning to the use of navigation systems, again, there has been poor implementation. The use of navigation systems raises a question that runs through the Commission paper: the interpretation of existing regulations varies from member state to member state. Why is there a lack of clarity in the EU regulations? Surely that is a fundamental starting place so that one can get a wording that every country is bound by—they may not agree it, but they are bound by it—because only then can the Commission start to exercise what authority it has.
As has been said, the level of compliance and enforcement is up to each member state, but if there is a variation of interpretation of the regulations and some member states are therefore not complying and enforcing in the way that we do, any statistics are meaningless. You would not be comparing similar things. The basic need is for clarity in the regulations and then we must then ask the EU to make certain that compliance and enforcement are the same throughout every member state.
When it comes to penalties and sanctions, the Commission also says that it is very difficult to get a comparison between the countries, because of the various legal systems and because of the available data. It goes on to say that it considers this to be an unsatisfactory situation,
“and encouraged Member States to provide for more harmonised application of the rules … ‘taking into account the limits of the competence that Member States and the legislators have decided to give to the Commission’”.
I am certainly not one who wishes to give more powers to the Commission—I think it has too many already, as your Lordships will have heard me say on many occasions—but perhaps this is one area where I might back off a little. Can my noble friend tell me whether the Commission is right in putting the blame back on to the member states or does he think that the Commission is not fulfilling the tasks that have already been allotted to it?
This is a very sad subject to have to debate yet again. We should not be doing it but it is clear that there is such diversity of opinion throughout the member states. This Government have done so much, as indeed did the previous Government who also got support from Sub-Committee D. Perhaps my noble friend on the Front Bench can give us some idea of how the Government see this being tackled in the future.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Mallalieu said in her authoritative speech, this is a timely debate because we finally have the opportunity to make some good progress on this important issue. I am delighted to join not only the consensus in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on his opening of the debate but the consensus that seems to be emerging, even from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in favour of stronger EU regulation, if only on this particular issue.
I speak as a former Minister for the horse. When I was leafing back through the 2005 strategy that we produced at that time in Defra, I found that some of the stats were worth repeating to show the importance of the horse industry to this country. It had a gross output in 2005 of around £3.4 billion; it employed up to 250,000 people directly and indirectly; 2.5 million people ride in this country; and 11 million people have some interest in the horse industry, 5 million of them having an active interest. The horse population was then certainly at least 600,000 and could total nearly 1 million horses.
Although it is largely left to my wife, I, too, am a horse owner and I would certainly endorse the view that has been put by so many of your Lordships about the remarkable nature of these animals. That nature has of course been celebrated very successfully, first in the novel War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, then in the wonderful stage adaptation and then in the slightly less wonderful but certainly watchable movie of the same name. I am also a patron of a charity called TheHorseCourse, which is doing innovative work with horses in prisons by using one of the remarkable features of these animals: they provide instant feedback to people because of their nature—they are both pack and prey animals. That is proving extremely effective for some of the more difficult offenders, particularly young offenders. I have seen that work at Portland young offender institution.
As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said in repeating the excellent Library note from, I think, 2008, we are a nation of horse lovers: hence our concern about transportation and welfare within the EU. This country’s affection for the horse is reflected in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and especially in the five freedoms that we gave all animals in that Act: a need for a suitable environment; a need for a suitable diet; a need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns; a need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals; and a need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease. We have heard graphically from speakers in this debate how horses are being denied those freedoms in the way in which some of them are being transported around the European Union.
Unfortunately this tradition in our culture is not uniform across EU member states, although I agree with those who say that it is not that citizens of other states want to be cruel; it is just that the culture is different. I am pleased that our tradition is now to some extent reflected in the 1997 revision of the treaty of Rome that happened in the Amsterdam treaty. The wording was changed to:
“Desiring to ensure improved protection and respect for the welfare of animals as sentient beings”—
the first time that animals were recognised as sentient beings in the treaty of Rome. This was then strengthened in the Lisbon treaty, which says:
“In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”.
That is a very important context for legislation and action by the Commission and member states on horse welfare and for concerns about the lack of consistent implementation of current regulations. As a result of those treaty changes, these are now fundamental animal welfare obligations on member states for which the Commission should be held to account. It should in turn be held to account on how it is using its powers to pursue member states that allow the unnecessary suffering of horses that are being transported unnecessary and inhumanely long distances. I am pleased that the Commission is currently focusing its efforts on enforcing the existing regulation and on guidance on its implementation. However, I agree with World Horse Welfare when it says that:
“Enforcement of any legislation is essential and there are certainly areas where guidance could have a positive impact. However, enforcement and guidance alone cannot address the key problem of journey times, which do not reflect current scientific knowledge about the impact of long journeys on horses, and other serious issues such as minimum space allowances which should be increased and vehicle standards, which are in need of improvement”.
We need a maximum journey of 12 hours at the very extreme, and ideally lower; and we need an enforceable regime, as transportation crosses borders so easily. Surely in these days of GPS tracking and other recording technology in vehicles, it must be possible to ensure manageable enforcement across the European Union.
I join my noble friend in congratulating the Government on pressing the Commission on this issue through their intervention last month, and am pleased to see the Council now agreeing to encourage the Commission to act. I look forward to the Minister’s update on the Commission’s response and would gently say to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, that we should push for what we want, even if inevitably negotiation means that we have to give ground in achieving our ambition. However, I accept from his hand gesture that you can argue that one both ways; it is six of one and half a dozen of the other.
I also look forward to the Minister’s response on the tripartite agreement, which all speakers have mentioned and which was examined in particular detail by the noble Lord, Lord Dear. I support his call for the Government to look at this a little more and to come back to us with an update if they need to. I also support what the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, said about getting more publicity if the Government’s obviously legendary spin machine can do anything to raise the profile of this, around which there is considerable public interest.
This is an important issue. The UK has a proud international reputation as a world leader on animal welfare and conservation. I hope that the Government can continue to influence progress on this issue. On that they will have our full support.
My Lords, in view of my own strong feelings in this area, I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Higgins for initiating debate and all noble Lords for participating today. I have a personal relationship with horses that goes back to my childhood. I have ridden under rules and we almost always have horses on the farm at home. My wife and mother are both members of equine welfare organisations and I am president of SPANA, the charity that concerns itself with the welfare of equids in developing countries, so this is a subject I feel strongly about. I applaud the work of World Horse Welfare and the Horse Trust, to which noble Lords have referred today, as well as other laudable organisations working in this field.
As my noble friend Lord Higgins said, there is a special relationship between the British public and horses, and I share the view of those who want to see the best possible welfare standards applied to all equines, both in this country and abroad. However, we have to acknowledge, as did the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that our views are not necessarily shared by all EU countries, many of which regard equines simply as farmed animals. The Government want to see the highest welfare standards for all animals but, to enable us to make the strongest case to those who do not share our views, these standards, particularly in relation to journey times, must be based on the best scientific evidence available. We would prefer to see a trade in meat and meat products or germ plasm rather than a trade in live animals and that animals are slaughtered as close as is practicable to their point of production. But the export of live animals for slaughter, however repugnant we may find it, is a legal trade.
During the peak of live exports 20 or so years ago, the Government and many local and port authorities were thwarted legally when they sought either to ban or curtail this trade. However, the fact that the trade is legal does not mean that we cannot insist that the highest welfare standards, backed up by the available scientific evidence, are applied to it without exception. That is why we have been pressing, are pressing and will continue to press the EU Commission to adopt the recommendation from the European Food Safety Agency that horses going to slaughter should face journeys of no more than 12 hours duration. That would be a significant improvement on the current rules, which allow journeys of up to 24 hours.
At the EU Council meeting on 18 June my right honourable friend Jim Paice, Minister of State for Agriculture and Farming, expressed the Government’s strong disappointment that the EU Commission was not intending to implement the EFSA recommendation on horses going to slaughter. We will continue to push hard for the adoption of the EFSA recommendation at the earliest possible opportunity. What we cannot, unfortunately, do is act unilaterally in an area already covered by directly applicable EU welfare and trade rules.
The current EU legislation on welfare during transport, EU Council Regulation 1/2005, has been in place for more than five years. The Commission’s recent review of the impact of the legislation noted that, while the welfare of animals during transport has benefited overall, significant problems still persist, particularly in relation to enforcement. We want to see the Food and Veterinary Office of the EU Commission taking a robust line against those member states that, five years on, have failed adequately to implement the welfare during transport legislation. We want to see the journey times for all animals, especially but not only those going to slaughter, reviewed to determine whether the current journey time rules are in line with existing and emerging scientific evidence.
In this debate we have mainly been talking about horses, but my noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned other species. We also want, for example, to see a discussion on better protection for infant livestock such as calves. We do not believe that it is right that unweaned calves should face extremely long journeys, sometimes from one end of the Community to the other. Our own research suggests—the noble Lord, Lord Knight, referred to this—that the quality of the transport and the competence of the driver, for example, are as important factors as the overall journey time experienced by livestock.
My noble friend Lord Higgins asked about enforcement and suggested that it was unsatisfactory that this should be entirely in the hands of local authorities. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency and local authorities are responsible for regulation and enforcement action. They inspect livestock transportation on the basis of an assessment of risk and additionally they will investigate claims of illegality or poor transport practices impacting on the welfare of animals. Their inspectors are active at major ports inspecting both imports and exports of horses. They may also inspect horses at the point of loading where they have prior intelligence that there may be welfare concerns. I can tell your Lordships that a successful prosecution involving the export of horses has concluded in Essex in the past few days.
My noble friend pointed to the trade between Poland and Italy and/or Spain. I am grateful to him and to my noble friend Lady Trumpington for calling my attention to a very similar trade between Poland and Germany. These are specific examples of the international trade in horses for slaughter, which is a cause for grave concern. I have looked into it—there was, indeed, a recent TV programme about it—and it looks very much as if my noble friends are tragically right. I have drawn this to the attention of my colleagues at the department and I shall return to the issue in a moment.
My noble friends Lord Higgins and Lord Addington and the noble Lord, Lord Dear, asked whether we will be reviewing the tripartite agreement. Defra has reviewed the risk of importing exotic equine diseases and whether the TPA needs to be amended to mitigate any increased risk. Officials have presented preliminary findings to the Chief Veterinary Officer and to the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England. Following consideration of the AHWBE’s views, proposals will be presented to my right honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr Paice, for consideration.
The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, referred to an increase in the number of unwanted horses as a result of the economic downturn and my noble friend Lady Trumpington also referred to the impact of the economic downturn. I have no doubt that current financial pressure is impacting across all sections of industry. Reported welfare problems include increased dumping of horses and passing horses to rescue centres as they are too expensive to keep. This is directly related to the price of feed. There are also seasonal factors in the reporting of welfare cases: not unnaturally, reports tend to increase during the winter months. Defra remains supportive of the equine industry’s contribution to the economy. The recently created health and welfare strategy group, the equine sector council, will play a valuable role in co-ordinating the views and concerns of the different welfare organisations involved in horse welfare.
The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, my noble friends Lord Addington and Lady Trumpington and, I think, others referred to the importance of public awareness and publicity generally to our case. The EU’s welfare strategy for 2012-15, published earlier this year, stresses the importance of raising public awareness on animal welfare issues. The EU Council has agreed with the Commission about the relevance of communicating to children, young adults and the public at large awareness of the need for respect for animals and promoting responsible ownership. We will be asking the Commission how it intends to take this work forward in future bilateral meetings with it on implementation of its strategy.
I understand that some international welfare organisations have had some success, specifically in targeting major retail chains in France and Belgium and persuading them to stop selling horsemeat from Mexico and Brazil due to the appalling conditions there. Unfortunately—I have been in communication with my noble friend Lady Trumpington on this—this appears to have resulted in a transfer of the source to Argentina, where welfare conditions are, I am afraid, little better. However, it does demonstrate the value of public opinion in Europe and the value of the work of welfare organisations. Of course, this debate is also helping to give airtime to this important subject.
My noble friend Lord Caithness said rightly that member states are deeply divided on the legislation and whether improvements should be made to it. It is true that a small majority supports the decision by the Commission not to press ahead with changes at the present time. We do not agree and want to see the EFSA recommendations introduced. We are not prepared to give up and I do not believe that we are alone.
My noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, referred to the European Commission’s November 2011 report on its review of regulation— I do not know whether they referred specifically to it but they referred to its contents—which highlights severe animal welfare problems during transport persisting. They are right. Reports submitted to the Food and Veterinary Office on its inspections of individual member states demonstrate that the level of enforcement of the legislation indeed varies significantly between them. The European Commission’s proposed solution to these problems involves adopting new implementing rules concerning satellite tracking systems, an increase in the number of inspections to improve existing controls, better reporting on compliance by member states, increased co-operation and communication between the competent authorities and NGOs and the dissemination of Commission guidance on the interpretation of the regulation and development of guides to good practice.
It remains to be seen how far the Commission will go. Like the noble Lord, Lord Knight, I have some doubt about the value of non-binding guides. However, at least it is actively working on a solution, and we will continue to monitor this and bring pressure to bear.
In conclusion, we care a great deal about the welfare of all equines—indeed, all animals. We acknowledge the work that the many equine welfare organisations do in caring for abandoned and badly treated animals, and the campaigns that they run to highlight welfare issues and concerns. We owe it to them—as well as, of course, to the animals themselves—to make sure that we do as much as possible at the international level to promote horse welfare. Nearer to home, we look forward to working with the recently formed equine sector council, which we hope will be a fresh and strong voice for the equine sector as a whole.
My Lords, I did not notice what time the debate started, so I am not sure whether I am going to be cut off in full flow. I do not propose to detain the House for more than a few moments. I was very fortunate to be able to obtain time for the debate and I am most grateful to all those who contributed, many of them with more expertise and long-standing involvement in these problems than I.
It has been an extremely helpful debate. We are fortunate in having a Minister who clearly has his heart in the right place on this issue. It is very much a question of our encouraging HMG and, in turn, HMG persisting in their efforts within the European Community. I will read again with interest what my noble friend said about inspection of this trade en route. It is not my impression from the evidence that has been produced that the situation is quite as good as he seemed to suggest, even though it may be as far as this country is concerned. We urge him to do all that he can within the complex negotiations in Europe and particularly to give priority to the question of journey times, which is crucial and could perhaps be facilitated by the use of more technology in monitoring what is actually going on.
On the tripartite agreement, it seems astonishing that the original agreement was extended in the way in which it has been. As the noble Lord, Lord Dear, pointed out, all one has to do is to go back to the original intention of that agreement. There is no great drafting problem with that; we simply revert to the original intention. I very much hope that my noble friend will consult the tripartite group to ensure that the other two will agree to go back to the original proposal. It would be a serious risk to the whole equine industry and, indeed, to many horse lovers—not least youngsters in this country—if we were suddenly to find that there was an outbreak of disease which involved the need to cull a large number of horses. I hope that my noble friend will see what he can do within Europe and with the other two signatories to the tripartite agreement.
I am most grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate and to the Minister for his response. We shall continue to encourage him to do all he can to further the needs of the people involved with this trade and horse lovers generally.