I declare a number of relevant interests as president of the Horse Trust, president of the Countryside Alliance, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Horse and a member of the RSPCA.
I am very pleased to introduce this simple but important Bill, which has come to us from the other place. I am grateful to the honourable Member for York Outer, Mr Julian Sturdy, for inviting me to take this Private Member’s Bill through this House and congratulate him on obtaining solid cross-party support for it.
In essence, the Control of Horses Bill proposes several small amendments to the Animals Act 1971, which are intended to help people to deal more promptly and effectively with horses that are unlawfully on their land. During the Bill’s passage through the other place, it received strong support from the Minister, Mr George Eustice, and from the Opposition in the form of the Member of Parliament for Penistone and Stocksbridge, Mrs Angela Smith. Indeed, the Minister, together with Mr Sturdy, made some amendments to the Bill to extend its scope to cover both private and public land. The Bill before us reflects these changes, having been amended in the Commons, and is now extended to apply the same remedy for fly-grazing to all land in England. It does not apply to Scotland or Wales. Indeed, Wales has its own Act covering this devolved matter. It is not perhaps common for a Private Member’s Bill that has come way down the list in the draw to get this far, especially within this rather condensed legislative period before the general election, but this perhaps underlines the urgent nature of a Bill to tackle this problem, fly-grazing.
In England alone, more than 3,000, probably nearer 4,000, horses are being fly-grazed, many in poor condition. Fly-grazing is defined as the practice of deliberately placing or abandoning equines on someone’s land without their consent. This includes not just horses and ponies but donkeys, mules and hinnies. The welfare organisations have obtained evidence that this practice has become increasingly significant in recent years and has become a widespread problem. In some places, it has never been heard of. In others, there are real hotspots, but by and large it extends the length and breath of the country and is not confined to rural, urban or suburban areas—it is everywhere. It has unfortunate problems not just for animal welfare but for public safety and the well-being of the communities that are blighted by it.
There are many cases of horses being abandoned and neglected. They range from situations in which owners who have struggled to cope have given up because of the cost of keeping a horse, to irresponsible breeding or when people just look for opportunities to graze or easily dispose of horses they cannot sell. There is some evidence that the increase in fly-grazing is linked to the weakness in the price of lesser-quality animals and to the recession. Many horses are now effectively of no value whatever.
The Animals Act 1971 needs amending for that reason, and the existing provisions are no longer valid. They were based on a time when there was a value to the horse. The current problem does not, therefore, meet the current legislation. The person who detains a horse on his land and goes through the procedures under the 1971 Act must then put it up for sale. The expectation when the Act was passed—and the relevant section covers all sorts of other animals that still have a value—was that the person who detained and possibly suffered damage as a result of fly-grazing would be able to recoup some money by selling the animal. However, that is not now the case.
There is increasing evidence that some unscrupulous dealers allow the horses to be detained and do not claim them. The horses are then taken, given a passport, a microchip, which very few of them have, possibly some veterinary treatment, are put up for sale and then bought back at a knockdown price by the very people who have effectively dumped them. They have acquired back a horse of considerably greater value, because with a passport and a chip it is likely to have some sale value, albeit for meat. As Julian Sturdy said of the Bill at Third Reading in another place:
“Our ability to protect horses from a life of neglect on both private and public land will be greatly enhanced”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/15; col. 1158.]
The timing of the legislation is to some extent dictated by a crisis that goes wider than simply fly-grazing. Against the background of between 3,000 and 4,000 horses that are being fly-grazed, it is estimated by the equine charities that a further 3,000 horses that are in a very poor condition at this moment, but are kept lawfully on land that people are entitled to use.
I turn to the details of the legislation. It is short, has just five clauses and proposes some modest but none the less important changes to the Animals Act to carve out a specific regime to deal with horses put on land without lawful authority in England. It leaves the Animals Act unchanged as it applies to other livestock and all the Act unchanged as it applies in Wales, because the matter is devolved. The Welsh are ahead of us: they enacted not identical but similar legislation in 2014. Ireland is ahead of us still. Southern Ireland brought in legislation of this type as long ago as 1996. It has been an enormous success, with a very large number of horses being detained and dealt with under that Act. In the first year of the Welsh legislation’s operation, some 480 horses passed through this system that would otherwise still be fly-grazing, unless they had died of neglect, which is sadly all too common.
Focusing on the central clause, Clause 3, the Bill enables local authorities, and private owners and occupiers of land, to deal with fly-grazing horses much more quickly than at present. It permits the disposal of horses after four working days from detention, rather than the 14 days currently prescribed under the Act. In addition, in the event that a detained horse is not claimed by the owner, the Bill provides more flexible options for disposal of horses. Instead of having to go through a sale at market or public auction, the Bill allows disposal by any means—humanely, obviously—that the detainer thinks fit. He can give the horse away, whether to a charity or a suitable individual, offer it for private sale, rehome it, or, in some cases where there is no alternative—this is the case with quite a significant number of these horses—arrange for humane euthanasia.
The current detention time under the Animals Act has been said to be unnecessarily long because there are considerable expenses attached to it. I believe that the proposed reduction to four working days strikes a good balance. It allows time for a responsible horse owner to claim their missing horse, while it reduces the expenses imposed on the local authority or person who has detained the horse and has to care for it properly on his own land. The Defra code of practice for horse welfare says that a horse should be seen at least once a day. That is what a responsible owner would do, so he would be alerted to any horse missing in very good time.
Fly-grazing is an extremely expensive problem. For each day that a horse is detained, there are requirements that it be properly cared for, fed and watered, and given shelter. Sometimes transport, housing and veterinary attention are necessary. We know that at least one council spent more than £100,000 to address the problem over the course of the year. The new measures proposed in the Bill have the potential to provide swift resolution to cases of fly-grazing and to deter others. This would also help to reduce the significant demand on resources that are usually required to tackle fly-grazing incidents. The reality is that many of these horses have little or no monetary value.
I also draw noble Lords’ attention to the safeguards in the Bill for what I would call responsible horse owners. I think we all accept that no matter how well fenced, there are occasions when horses accidently stray, very often through no fault of the owner, through a gate being left open or something of that sort. The Bill includes procedural protections to ensure that responsible horse owners can track down and reclaim horses that have accidentally strayed and are wrongly presumed to be fly-grazing. Those procedural protections would be overseen by the local police, who, under the Bill’s provisions, have to be notified within 24 hours of any detention, or that detention may not carry on. On this basis, a horse owner who contacts the police about a missing horse will enable the police to reconcile that report with a notice given by a person detaining a fly-grazing horse. One hopes that they would be able to reunite the horse with its legitimate owner, once settlement is agreed over the costs of any care provided during the detention period. The police already operate a call and command computer system, which is often shared with the local authority and other police stations. Hopefully, once this measure is in place, that can be polished up and extended.
Unfortunately, the owners of fly-grazing horses are often quite impossible to trace, or they do not wish to be traced as they have abandoned the horse. I have seen the results of that for myself at the Horse Trust, where I saw one of three nice horses that had been abandoned in a ploughed field. One was dead by the time anyone was alerted, the second was unable to be moved and was put down on the spot, and the third had what I was told was a condition score of nought. It was in fact a skeleton with some skin on it. Astonishingly, with incredibly good care, that horse survived, but many do not and many are found starving or worse. They have very rarely been properly treated for parasites and some are injured. Many suffer from malnutrition and exposure, and very often they have been grazing in areas with poisonous plants and have suffered long-term damage, for example from ragwort. In 2014, the RSPCA received more than 2,000 calls about more than 1,300 horses and donkeys that appeared to have been, frankly, abandoned. Therefore, animal welfare is one problem which this Bill is aimed at dealing with.
There are problems of other sorts, not just what I call the problem of starving horses. In recent years there seem to have been a number of incidents, one as recently as last week in Essex, of unwanted, unweaned foals being left on verges, abandoned because the mare had some value but the foal did not. Fortunately, in that case the RSPCA was able to pick up the foal and it is hoped that it will enable it to survive. I have come across a number of incidents of that sort and have seen some myself.
There is a further problem, which is the danger of horses fly-grazing not just on playing fields and school playgrounds but on roads, some of them major, on to which they have strayed. There are also some areas where unscrupulous dealers—I suspect they are dealers but who knows who they are—repeatedly put horses. On 5 January the RSPCA rescued eight horses that were fly-grazing near Leighton Buzzard. They were all in very poor condition and five of them died as a result of malnutrition, parasites and severe neglect. About 10 days later, on 15 January, eight more horses were simply put back into the same field. On that occasion it took four hours for a combination of the police, Blue Cross, the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare to round up the horses, none of which appeared ever to have been handled in any way and so presented considerable difficulties.
The dangers are not just road accidents but unfortunately sometimes very nearly fatal rail accidents. Last year, in November, 12 horses were killed on a railway line near Cambridge, having been caught on the track between two trains. As short a time as two weeks ago, some horses that had been wandering on the roads and had been put by well meaning people into a field had direct access to the railway line near Darlington and were killed. In both those cases, although the trains were damaged, fortunately the people in them were not seriously hurt. However, there are major accidents waiting to happen.
This is a case of not just health and safety but expense. The people concerned with this practice are going to have little or no concern for the inconvenience and expense that they impose on others through their actions. Indeed, the countryside and welfare groups estimate that this illegal practice costs millions of pounds each year, not just to farmers or landowners but to the police, charities and councils, and hence to taxpayers. Sadly, the major horse welfare charities are reporting that their rehoming centres are full to capacity of unwanted horses, and some of them have had to take on extra space to try to deal with at least part of the burden placed on them. This lack of resources is clearly unsustainable.
There is, I am glad to say, not only cross-party support for this measure but support from all those involved with the problem. The profile of what has been going on has been raised greatly in the last year by the campaigning organisations, which have made people aware of what has been going on. For many people, in this House and elsewhere, there is no conception of what is happening outside.
The bodies that have worked particularly hard include the RSPCA, Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings. They have joined forces with the Countryside Alliance, the CLA and the National Farmers’ Union. Together, that group produced a report on fly-grazing called Stop the Scourge. The strong consensus between groups that do not always agree on every aspect is an indication of just how important and how urgent this measure is. I am also aware that the Local Government Association is strongly in favour of the Bill, as are the police.
This Bill, short though it is, is good for animal welfare and public safety. It will ease the serious financial impact, not just on the police, charities and councils but on all of us through the taxes we pay. Above all, we have an opportunity to greatly enhance our ability to protect horses from the consequences of irresponsible ownership. In amending the Animals Act, this Bill will allow us to create a more practical and less burdensome solution to fly-grazing. It is not a total solution because that involves educating owners, but it would, I hope, ensure that local authorities and those who own land are in a better position to intervene when fly-grazing occurs and they are faced with the difficulties.
I should like to underline my debt to Julian Sturdy, who has campaigned on this issue for a very long time, for his commitment to this pressing issue. I would also like to add that the commitment from the Minister is also to be commended. I think he was determined to see that this Bill reached this House. He has assisted greatly with the passage of this Bill so far, as have his officials, to whom I also pay tribute. I strongly commend this Bill to your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Countryside Alliance and the National Farmers’ Union. I also must declare that my wife is a breeder of some reputation—good, I hasten to add—of Welsh mountain show ponies. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, on promoting this necessary and worthwhile Bill. Anything that serves to improve the welfare of horses in particular and equines in general is to be applauded. I give the Bill my strongest support.
All my life I have been an enthusiastic horseman, although early in my career it might not have appeared to be quite as simple as that. Having left school at the age of 16 to learn about horses and national hunt racing, I aspired to be the then Tony McCoy of the late 1960s. Such was my enthusiasm and even my courage I was undeterred by the results of my first season’s riding as an amateur over fences. I believe that record remains unbeaten to this day: it was 36 rides, 34 falls, one pulled up and one refused. When I rode for myself, which was more often than not—owners appeared not to recognise my certain skills as a future master of the jockey’s art—I wore the historic Shrewsbury silks of scarlet with gold hoops and a scarlet cap. They were, of course, excellent colours to attract attention just when one did not need it.
I found that out one Easter Saturday afternoon at Whittington in Lunesdale—“Oop north” as we Midlanders say. I had a particularly bone-crushing tumble on a very good horse of mine, Coke’s Cousin, having been brought down by a decent nag called Clear and Clean. Not a lot was clear and clean from where I was rolling around in pain and anger on the Lancashire turf, but a fellow competitor passed over me and shouted, “Oh lordy, you look just like an angry little wasp”. I got my own back a couple of races later when a complete novice having his first ride and having failed to walk the course, which I knew, asked me where to go as we came up to a split in the track on the far side by the River Lune. I shouted, “Go right”, and he did. I finished second and he was disqualified for taking the wrong course but I spent the remainder of that afternoon avoiding his father, who was becoming an increasingly darker shade of purple with rage. Needless to say, never again did I dare to make an appearance at Whittington races, being a marked man with loud colours and a slightly suspect fan club.
This Bill addresses the serious issue of fly-grazing, and other speakers will address that aspect. I wish to draw your Lordships’ attention to other matters which are equally as pressing in animal welfare terms. There is a slogan that a dog is for life and not just for Christmas. Exactly the same can be said for horses and ponies. As so often is the case, horses and ponies are bought as presents, with considerable enthusiasm and all good intent, without the people involved realising just how much of a commitment, in terms of time, welfare and finance, they are entering into. Fodder, veterinary bills, farriers’ bills, saddlery, transport, accommodation, adequate grazing and fencing, pasture management—the list is never ending and extremely expensive.
There still exists the major problem of the indiscriminate breeding of animals which are already far too plentiful, resulting in unwanted, poor-quality young stock whose only end is either being dumped or a one-way journey to the butcher’s slab. It is not unheard of for two foals to be sold as a job lot in one sale for a five pound note. What sort of life is this for one of man’s most trusted friends and servants?
What results have Her Majesty’s Government achieved with their programmes of equine passports and microchipping? Do these programmes apply to the whole of the UK? In addition, will Her Majesty’s Government consider regulating the indiscriminate breeding of inferior equine stock?
Finally, I wish this Bill the great success it so rightly deserves.
My Lords, I add my voice in support of this Bill, which has been so ably introduced by the noble Baroness today. Both previous speakers have close associations with the Countryside Alliance and in a previous life I chaired the campaign to protect hunted animals when I was at the RSPCA. I think that that visibly demonstrates the breadth of support, not only across the political divides but among all the countryside and animal welfare organisations in the country. The way they have worked together is to be commended and I hope it will be the way of things in the future.
I wish to speak briefly to flesh out two points. The first is that of the Welsh example, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, alluded. In the one year since this Bill was introduced in Wales, more than half of all local authorities have found the need to make use of this legislation. In Swansea alone it has been used more than 175 times, which shows that this legislation is really needed.
However, it also poses a threat and a problem for England because a number of horse owners will simply try to export the problem. One particular horse owner, who is well known to local authorities and animal welfare groups, has in excess of 2,000 horses and is merely moving the problem around. If we do not have this legislation soon on the statute books with applicability in England, this problem will get worse and worse.
The second issue I want to flesh out further is the unsustainability of this problem for the animal welfare groups, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, referred. As I have said, I am familiar with the excellent work that the RSPCA does for horses. It has space for 113 horses in its care; at the moment it is looking after more than 700 horses, with the majority of the animals farmed out to private stables and accommodation. The cost to the RSPCA for looking after those horses is, at the moment, £2.95 million, and that excludes veterinary and prosecution costs.
The scale of the problem is not one that the RSPCA alone bears—it is shared by all the equine charities that we have, to our credit, in this country. It is not sustainable in the future and we need to act, and act quickly.
I therefore wish the Bill a speedy progress through both Houses. It will help local authorities, animal welfare groups, local communities and local people, but most of all it will help rescue horses, too many of whom are suffering a miserable existence because of the conditions they are forced to suffer because of fly-grazing and irresponsible horse owners.
My Lords, I must declare my interests as I have a Highland pony stud and a small rural riding centre in north Yorkshire; I am also a member of the NFU. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, on her clear explanation of the Control of Horses Bill. When I met the Member for York Outer, Julian Sturdy MP, who took this Bill through the other place, I told him that it could not be in better and safer hands in your Lordships’ House than in those of the noble Baroness and the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, who is the “Minister of the horse”.
I am interested in this Bill because it is to do with animal welfare. We are told that fly-grazing appears to have increased significantly in recent years, and charities estimate that 3,000 horses are being fly-grazed in England alone. What is the reason for this? Is it because of the economic state of some parts of the country, or is it that horses and ponies get into the hands of people who do not understand what is needed, so they turn them away when they cannot cope? There may be many different reasons, as has already been stated.
I would like to ask the Minister for some assurances to be given to the owners of horses when unexpected things happen. The Control of Horses Bill will enable local authorities and the owners and occupiers of land to deal more quickly with horses that are left on their land—after four working days as opposed to the current 14 days—and will provide more options for dealing with unclaimed horses, including private sale, gifting them to a charity and humane euthanasia.
If horses knock down fences or gates are left open by walkers and horses escape, they might be put into someone else’s field for safety reasons. Would that be classed as fly-grazing? Horses might be stolen and more time may be needed to try to find them. The overzealous RSPCA officer or local council official might not provide enough time for desperate owners to look for their horses. Some terrible things have been done to loved horses by cruel and delinquent people. With such a shortage of police officers in rural areas, time must be given to find lost horses. When I came to live in Yorkshire, there used to be two policemen in our local village; now there is none, and most of the police stations in country towns either have closed or are closing, so it takes time to get hold of a police officer. I keep my fields locked because walkers have left the gates open so many times, but at times horses will either jump over fences or knock them down.
Some horses are very valuable, while as has been said, others have very little monetary worth. Each year in my area we have Gypsies en route for Appleby Fair. They often graze their horses on the side of the road. Some people might consider that to be fly-grazing.
I hope that everything will be made clear in guidance and regulations so that innocent people are protected from overzealous officers getting it wrong. We heard from the noble Baroness that horses had been turned out into a ploughed field. When they were found, they were nearly dead, and in fact, one had died. I should also like to ask the Minister about the current situation as regards the database.
I hope that this Bill will help with the problem of fly-grazing and that it will have a speedy journey through your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, on bringing this Bill here today and colleagues in another place on instigating it. I add my support, and that of the Local Government Association on behalf of local government, to this important legislation. If enacted, it will address the problems caused by fly-grazing horses, which is an issue in Bradford and many other communities.
I speak with a particular interest in the subject as the former chairman of the LGA, the former leader of the City of Bradford Metropolitan District City Council and a current councillor there. Noble Lords may not immediately associate horses with urban centres, but in Bradford the council has had to spend nearly a third of a million pounds to impound and look after more than 200 horses in the last four years alone. Illegally tethered horses are a real problem facing local authorities, both urban and rural. One might hope that responsibility, stewardship and the duty of care which should be part and parcel of owning animals would make this Bill unnecessary. However, this is not always the case. Fly-grazed horses are often, as we have heard, not cared for properly and suffer from injury and malnutrition.
I will not take up too much time on this issue, given the need for the Bill to make swift progress. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, has already made the case that no animal should suffer such neglect. Many, however, will not be aware that fly-grazing, as well as being an animal welfare issue, places a significant financial burden on local authorities. It is not only a problem on public land, which is why I applaud the amendment made in the other place, which will ensure the legislation protects all landowners, both public and private.
At a time when local government has to make every penny count, it is both an absurdity and a great unfairness that taxpayers are having to face the costs of collecting and caring for these animals on behalf of owners. Perhaps most importantly, it is of great concern that fly-grazed horses pose a real risk to people simply going about their business, be that driving on our highways or enjoying playing fields, nature reserves or parks. In Wakefield, a horse tethered at the side of a main dual carriageway got free and collided with a car at night. Fortunately, the driver and his passenger escaped with only minor injuries, but the horse died. Other incidents have included fly-grazed horses charging at children playing and escaping into residents’ gardens and a nearby school.
As noble Lords will be aware, the Bill has both government backing and cross-party support. By reducing the amount of time during which local authorities are obliged to look after horses left on their land, as well as by offering more options for disposing of unclaimed horses, the Bill would ease the financial burden on councils while helping to deter the practice in the first place. As such, I wholeheartedly commend this Bill to the House and urge fellow Peers to do likewise.
I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Mallalieu for bringing forward this important Bill today, and thank the other speakers who have voiced their support for this measure. I declare my interest as a farmer, but one without any horse interests.
I pay tribute to my noble friend and to the many organisations that have campaigned for this over several years, including the CLA, the National Farmers’ Union and the Countryside Alliance, as well as the Horse Trust, the RSPCA, Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings. I also thank the many people and organisations that have had to deal with the problems of abandoned horses, including the many stables and sanctuaries, such as Mane Chance Sanctuary, all of which were instrumental in producing the report Left on the Verge: In the Grip of a Horse Crisis in England and Wales.
It is important to point out, however, that the bulk of horse and pony owners, including the Travelling community, are responsible and take care and pride in the job they do. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has nothing to fear from overzealous inspectors if horses are being properly microchipped.
The Bill will provide an answer to the abuses as it follows in the footsteps of the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, which was a Labour commitment in Wales and has been very successful already, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. Although this may have transposed problems from Wales, it is nevertheless a problem that affects all parts of the United Kingdom and is a growing problem, as we have heard from many speakers. Although the problem in Wales mostly concerned public land and was so limited, this Bill has been improved to extend the provisions to private land and amend the Animals Act 1971 to close the loopholes that have left a gap in which the scourge of unlawful fly-grazing has been able to proliferate.
My noble friend Lady Mallalieu and the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, have outlined the problems caused by the estimated 3,000 loose and stray horses with little or no value—the result of poor husbandry by owners often unable to afford the costs of care and fearful of repercussions. However, trespass is a civil matter and the equine passport regime was designed more for health and food issues regarding bute than it was for identification of owners. Microchipping is compulsory only for horses born since 2009.
The Bill now puts the law into the lands of the landowner or occupier and the authorities to follow simple steps of procedure in order to bring an end to this abuse. A number of police forces—and, I hope, more in the future—operate a “green yard” policy to aid them in handling horses found on the highways, which are their responsibility to remove to safety. These green yards may be private commercial livery businesses, charities or farms, which can receive a horse to board for the current statutory 14 days prior to the horse being sold at market. With the average cost to the police to board such animals of £10 per horse per day, plus any transport costs, the reduction in the length of detention under the Bill will save some £100 per horse in keep alone.
The Bill also provides flexibility, as my noble friend Lady Mallalieu has explained, providing a range of options for the disposal of any detained horse. One of the most inspiring options is provided by Jenny Seagrove at her Mane Chance Sanctuary, where horses and ponies are used as therapeutic tools for adults and children with a variety of problems, where a relationship with horses has been found to be particularly beneficial. I know she is proposing to set up many similar refuges for horses around the country. While expansion in this area would be very welcome, it is sadly unlikely to take in the sheer numbers from the overpopulation of horses in Britain. With welfare charities rehoming as many as possible, there is likely to be a need humanely to put down those animals unable to recover and live out a healthy life due to their poor condition or those with little prospect of finding a new home.
In the longer term the best outcome seems to be signalled by the new powers granted in the new European SANCO/7063 regulation, which allows member states to make the unique microchipping of all equine animals mandatory in addition to those born since 2009, with the introduction of a new mandatory central equine database. This would properly provide the best value in protecting the human food chain as well as enabling easier enforcement of other health and welfare regulation to manage disease, in addition to providing identity and linking each horse to a current legal owner. It is for the Minister’s department to implement this power. It would be of major significance to all the organisations mentioned if he would confirm this and outline his department’s plans regarding how it proposes to introduce SANCO/7063 and the timetable for its introduction.
On this side of the House, we believe that the Bill is an important measure that is in urgent need of implementation. We support it wholeheartedly and underline our commitment to its making speedy progress, without amendment, through your Lordships’ House and on to the statute book before Dissolution. We are somewhat critical of the Government for not having prioritised the Bill when there have been adequate opportunities during this Session, making it necessary for my noble friend Lady Mallalieu to step forward. The outdated and ill fitting legislation and enforcement powers are allowing criminals to outmanoeuvre their responsibilities and evade accountability while horses suffer, and landowners, whether public or private, find themselves enmeshed in a cruel and tragic maze. If for any reason this Bill were not to make it to the statute book, a journey that could be made so much easier if it were to be given government time, make no mistake: the next Labour Government will legislate to stop fly-grazing.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, for bringing the Bill to your Lordships’ House and for her detailed contributions on this very serious matter of equine welfare. I should also declare an interest as a thoroughly horsy person. I am not currently an owner, but I will not be outdone by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, although I might not dwell on it at quite such length. I have also ridden under rules. In fact, I have someone else’s animals on my holding with, I emphasise, my full consent. I welcome the opportunity to confirm that the Government fully support this Bill. I equally welcome the support of everyone else who has spoken.
My honourable friend George Eustice expressed in another place our conviction that the Bill, if enacted, could go a long way towards improving the existing remedies to tackle fly-grazing in the Animals Act 1971 and, in the process, improve the state of equine welfare in this country.
As the charities have reported, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, has said, several thousand horses are currently being left to graze on other people’s land without consent. This affects both public and private land and shows that certain horse owners show disregard for their responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Instead, this duty of care is imposed, unsolicited, upon others, who have to care for fly-grazed horses on their land, often incurring substantial and sudden costs in the process.
It would be remiss of me not to join the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, in paying tribute to my honourable friend Julian Sturdy, the Member for York Outer, for bringing forward the Bill in another place and his handling of it there. As the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, rightly said, there was consensus in another place that the Bill offers a chance to introduce a fairer and more effective remedy against fly-grazing and horse abandonment. That consensus has been echoed here today.
As a horse lover and the Minister responsible for animal welfare, I have a strong interest in the issue of fly-grazed horses and how to deal with the problem.
Four key Acts of Parliament apply in this area. As well as the Animals Act and the Animal Welfare Act, which is relevant to horses in distress, there is also the new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which gives stronger and swifter powers to deal with the owners of fly-grazed horses where those owners are able to be identified, and the Highways Act 1980, which gives powers to the police with respect to horses straying on the highway. We have acknowledged that making some relatively small but important amendments to the Animals Act would go a long way towards ensuring that the provisions in that Act work better for those trying to deal with fly-grazing. It would bring the legislation up to date and make the process more efficient and less burdensome.
In September last year, I attended a hearing of the House of Commons EFRA Select Committee on horse welfare. What was remarkable about that discussion was that, despite the wide variety of groups participating—from horse welfare charities to the RSPCA, the NFU, the CLA, local authorities and other community representatives—all participants agreed that action was needed to address fly-grazing. They were all keenly aware that the matter has a significant bearing on animal welfare. Following that committee, and after considering the telling case put by the coalition of welfare, countryside and farming interests, I am delighted to say that we were able to offer support for the Bill and help it progress to this stage in as smooth a manner as possible.
Several noble Lords asked questions. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury asked whether anything can be done about the indiscriminate overbreeding of inferior-quality horses. Overbreeding of horses is of course a significant concern and a sign of irresponsible horse ownership and neglect. Part of the problem lies in the need for better education for owners and potential owners. They must ask themselves: do they need to breed from their horses? Do they have a market for their foals? Can they afford the costs of caring for those foals, including the costs of grazing or stabling?
The overpopulation of low-market-value horses may also be traced to the large number of abandoned animals that have been left to breed indiscriminately. The Bill could help improve the situation by introducing a remedy to allow landowners and occupiers to take swift action to deal with such horses if they stray on to their land. The remedy will ensure that the horses, once detained, will not be released back to their previous state of abandonment. They would be sold, rehomed, gifted or, ultimately, euthanized, depending on their condition and the opportunities available in each respective case.
My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury also asked about the application of the horse passport regime. Since February 2005, all owners of horses, ponies and other equines in the United Kingdom have been required to have a passport for each animal in order to comply with European legislation. Since 2009, in addition to being passported, all equines are required to be microchipped. Derogations from those requirements may apply to defined populations of wild or semi-wild horses. Derogated areas exist in England and Wales. In England, that applies to the Dartmoor, Exmoor and New Forest ponies.
The Government believe that the regime needs strengthening. A number of steps have been taken to address that at a national level—for example, by agreeing new operating standards for horse passport issuing organisations, which came into full effect on 1 April last year, and by giving clear guidance to owners and vets about their responsibilities under the legislation.
In addition, the EU adopted a revised EU-wide horse passport regulation last autumn. The key changes are: all member states to have a central equine database with greater sharing of information between member states; tighter controls over microchips and an option for member states to require chipping of older horses; a requirement to notify when a horse has been signed out of the food chain following medical treatment, with details recorded on the database; and new minimum standards for passport-issuing organisations, with stronger powers to allow Governments to suspend or withdraw approval to passport issuing organisations which fail to meet the standards. All those new rules come into effect on 1 January 2016—apart, in response to a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, from the central database, which must be in place on 1 July 2016 for those member states which do not currently operate central equine databases, which include the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked whether the Government will implement the power granted in SANCO 7063, the new EU horse passport regulation, mandating microchipping of all horses rather than only those born since 2009. At the outset, noble Lords may like to know that the UK was instrumental in securing that provision in the newly revised EU horse passport regulation, which, as I said, is due to come into effect from January next year. The original proposal contained no such provision, and I know that it is one which the equine sector has welcomed. It has congratulated the department on securing that small but potentially important change. My officials are now working closely with representatives of the equine sector council to develop the necessary analysis of the costs and benefits of making retrospective chipping mandatory. It is an optional provision in the revised EU regulation, and I hope that noble Lords will approve of the fact that the arguments and justification for doing so must be robust and make sense for horse owners and regulators alike. I am encouraged, however, by the way in which the sector has responded to the challenge to produce that analysis and we will continue to work closely with it on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked what safeguards are in place to ensure that a horse owner can protect his or her horse and recover it if it accidentally strays and is detained under the provisions. The primary safeguard to prevent a horse straying and being detained is, of course, responsible ownership. The Defra code of practice on the welfare of horses prescribes that persons responsible for a horse should check on it at least once a day—something that will have been drilled into the noble Baroness, as it was into me, from an early age. In addition, the Animals Act already contains a safeguard system, in that it requires that the police be informed and maintain a record-keeping system for any reports of detained and missing horses.
The Act also requires that notices be issued to the horse’s owner if this person is known. Information given to the police is retained through a call and command computer system, and in practice details are often shared with local authorities. The process should enable horse owners to come forward to claim their horse within the specified detention time. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to that as four days; it is in fact four working days, which is slightly longer in most cases. This allows the owners to know with some certainty that if the horse has been detained, the police will have the details of the detention. The police will be able to advise the horse’s owners of their rights under the Animals Act. Under the Bill, the safeguard process would remain although the police would be required to receive details of a detained horse within 24 hours, instead of within 48 hours as at present. This enables horse owners to act more immediately, which is in the interests of all parties, not least the detained horse.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, also asked about the reason for fly-grazing, and alluded to the fact that it is probably complex, and indeed it is—there is a range of reasons. The reason that we are really focusing on here is the deliberate theft of other people’s grazing, often by large numbers of horses.
The Bill provides a tremendous opportunity to address what has become quite a widespread problem of fly-grazing, and to improve the legal protection afforded to abandoned or fly-grazed horses. I support this Bill and we thank the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, for taking it forward. I hope it will have a speedy passage on to the statute book.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister and to all those who have spoken. Each of the speeches has come from a position of knowledge and added to the strength of the arguments for the Bill, whether that was from a local government perspective, a charity perspective or from someone who runs riding stables or breeds horses. Those were all valuable contributions. A number of questions were asked, which I believe the Minister has answered fully. Perhaps I may underline the request made by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that if it can be done—as I hope it will, as soon as possible—retrospective chipping should become the policy. That is the key to the equine database being effective in 2016.
I will pick up just one matter which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, when she asked about Gypsies and Travellers. I make it absolutely clear that the Bill is aimed at irresponsible owners, not the Travelling community. The Gypsy Council has made it clear that it has no objections to the Bill. Nobody should be using somebody else’s land to graze their horses without permission. That is the underlying basis on which it is proposed to make these changes.
As the Minister noted, we all hope that we can fit within the timetable by taking the Bill forward as quickly as possible and see it on the statute book within this Parliament. It is the case, as I am sure noble Lords will appreciate, that it would be a pity to lose the opportunity provided by the Bill. If it were to be amended in this House then, sadly, it would not have time to gain Royal Assent, which would be a huge shame. I very much hope that noble Lords will support the Bill in its present form and allow it swift passage through this House. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.