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Equine Welfare Standards

Volume 777: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2017

Question for Short Debate

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve equine welfare standards.

My Lords, I have stepped inadequately into my noble friend Lord Higgins’s place this evening. He apologises for being unable to attend because of a family illness, and I thank him for initiating this important debate.

I had my noble friend down as a heroic athlete rather than an equestrian, but clearly there are more shoes to his feet than just running ones, and we must now add riding boots. I myself have been involved with horses and ridden them since I was two; frightening though it is to say, that is for 63 years. All the horses that I have owned have lived to an old age and at present Treacle, my grandchildren’s Shetland, is thought to be around 28 years old, so clearly I am doing something right.

As noble Lords will know, horses 63 years ago were an extremely important part of people’s livelihoods. They were still used for work on farms, and in towns they were used by breweries, scrap merchants and milkmen, to name just a few. Now we associate them with sport and pleasure, but they are no less important to our way of life and the economy. Contributing around £8 billion to the economy, the horse industry employs more than 200,000 people. This employment is particularly important to those living in rural areas.

With nearly 1 million horses in the UK, we are reaching something of a crisis. This crisis is not the fault of thousands of responsible owners who look after their horses, ponies and donkeys in an exemplary way. I am sure we all know people who go without certain comforts so that their equine friends are looked after to a high standard. This crisis is about irresponsible dealers and owners who are ignorant and in some cases naive about the responsibilities associated with owning horses. The market has become saturated and prices have crashed in the murky world of irresponsible dealers and breeders.

It is estimated that 7,000 horses could be at risk. There has been an increase of reported welfare problems, seen by the RSPCA, Redwings, the BHS, World Horse Welfare and Blue Cross, all of which must be congratulated on the hard work they do towards animal welfare. Arguably, perhaps the increase in reported cases is welcome and means that the public are becoming vigilant and doing something about what they witness. However, I am not convinced that is the case, and of course an ideal is to have no reported problems at all.

It can cost up to £100 a week and in some cases more to keep a horse, but one with bad conformation and in poor health can be worth no more than a few pounds. There are breeders and dealers who allow their horses to run together, breeding indiscriminately, regardless of age and conformation, and so on, which means that many of these horses are worthless.

A report called Horses in Our Hands, published in July 2016 following a four-year study by the University of Bristol, funded by World Horse Welfare, found four main areas of concern: unresolved stress and pain behaviour, inappropriate nutrition, lack of suitable stabling and turnout, and delayed death. I will speak briefly on one of these problems: turnout, or indeed lack of it.

Fly-grazing has become an increasing problem among the travelling community, but the problem is not exclusive to them. For instance, dealers in Wales were found to be fly-grazing their animals over a wide area. Landlords and local authorities find it costly and time-consuming to prosecute so the practice carries on, and there is confusion about how to eliminate it. Local authorities do not have the resources to prosecute or indeed even investigate, and horses are not designated as one of the priority animals.

By nature these horses tend not to have passports or be microchipped, so finding their owners can in itself be problematical. Many horses are not legally identified. Even if the owner is known, unless the horse is signed over to the local authority or a charity they are unable to rehabilitate, sell or geld the animal until a case is concluded. That results in horses being kept in centres for a considerable time, which leads to rising costs and fewer spaces available for incoming horses. Of course, charities do not have blank cheques to build new facilities.

What can be done about this and the other problems found in the report I mentioned earlier? As I have so often said in this House on many different topics—this is no different—we need a joined-up, concerted approach to this distressing problem. Animal health welfare groups, vets, trading standards and professional equine bodies—including yard owners, feed suppliers, farriers, hunts, pony and riding clubs—and the Government need to work together to educate the public, encourage best practice and enforce the law.

Government and equine organisations must communicate clearly about equine welfare, and make sure that owners can identify suitable sources of advice and that the advice they receive is up to date and without commercial bias. Practical solutions must be developed and owners encouraged to seek help and advice, particularly when they find themselves in trouble from unexpected hardships. They should feel that they can come forward in the knowledge that they will be helped, not judged.

According to the RSPCA, the new legislation passed in 2013-14, which has made it easier to deal with problems of fly-grazing, has brought the numbers down. However, there is still patchy enforcement of the legislation. Good practice for this and other welfare concerns needs to be enforced with training for local authorities and for animal welfare officers dealing with horses.

I am aware that the problem of horse identification is being tackled by Defra—I am sure that the Minister will confirm this. This has to be one of the most important priorities if vets, local authorities and charities want to find unscrupulous owners. I understand that from next month there will be a central database, to be fully operational by the end of the year. However, the problem will remain if local authorities do not enforce the law due to lack of resources. Have we missed an opportunity in that horses born before 2009 do not need to be microchipped? I hope that the Minister might consider making microchipping for all horses mandatory.

There is a welcome initiative in which in certain cases discounts are available on the cost of microchipping and obtaining up-to-date passports for animals. This has been seen to be popular among the travelling community, so perhaps it could be extended. However, if you cannot afford to get your horse a passport and a microchip, perhaps you cannot afford a horse in the first place.

I have touched only briefly on a few of the problems facing equine welfare. There are many more issues that I could have raised, such as the live transport of horses and ponies over long distances and abroad. I greatly look forward to hearing from other noble Lords this evening, who I am sure will cover many of the issues not mentioned by me.

In conclusion, the Government cannot be solely responsible. Equine welfare must be the responsibility of all of us involved with horses. We must be the eyes and ears for horses and report bad practice where we see it so that the animals we respect and love can lead healthy, happy and productive lives.

My Lords, notwithstanding the helpful way in which the noble Baroness opened the debate, I am sorry that we do not have the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, here to thank him both for initiating it and for a lifetime of work on his part to improve animal welfare, particularly that of horses.

I am a horse owner of some 60 years, and the one sure thing I know is that the more you think you know about horses, the less you really do. That was clear to me from the report to which the noble Baroness drew our attention, because I learned an enormous amount from reading it. The first and most important point is that equine welfare is largely compromised by ignorance and not just by those who are irresponsible.

I should declare my interests as president of the Horse Trust and of the Countryside Alliance, and as a trustee of the charity Racing Welfare and of the union for stable staff in racing, NASS. It is a great pleasure that today the British Horseracing Authority has shown that it appreciates the importance of this area by announcing the appointment of its first director of equine health and welfare.

In my four minutes I will concentrate on just four things that I think the Government could do right now to make a real difference. First, the code of good practice for the horse, currently on the statute book, is out of date. Over a year ago, the Equine Sector Council consulted widely, then approved and, in March 2006, presented to Defra a ready-to-go, up-to-date code of practice, since when there has been silence. Would the Minister be good enough to undertake to take it off the shelf and bring it into force? The industry would prefer it to be statutory but, if that cannot be done at once, then I ask that it at least be given Defra approval until it can be.

My second point concerns the retrospective issue of horse passports and microchipping. Many horses—many of them elderly—are without passports or microchips. Their owners cannot apply for them as the deadline has long passed, so they cannot enter the food chain. There is a real welfare problem at end of life with horses of no economic value. It is expensive to put them down. Too often as a result, suffering is unnecessarily prolonged as the owner cannot face giving, or afford to give, the order or, worse, the horse is passed on to who knows where or is abandoned. The Government have the option to seek a derogation to allow retrospective microchipping and then to set up our own database. The digital system is ready to go—it has been fully developed. What is needed now is positive encouragement at Defra to get the consultation under way and to get this up and running. Post-Brexit, we will be able to do it anyway.

My third point concerns phenylbutazone, or bute—a common painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug widely used for horses. However, no horse in this country which has ever been given bute can enter the food chain. According to Defra, a vet has to mark the passport at the dead of night before he treats a horse, which is absurd. It is supposed to be a protection for human health but the EU allows imports of horsemeat from third countries, notably from Mexico and Canada, where considerable numbers of United States thoroughbreds—ex-racehorses—are sent for slaughter, many of them after very long journeys and many of which have had bute. A derogation for a withdrawal period of six months for our horses ought to be sought. There is no evidence of danger to human health after such an interval, as the EU tacitly recognises by accepting those overseas horses. Therefore, a consultation could be started on this now. After Brexit we will be able to make our own rules not just on this but on live exports, for which the welfare restrictions we have wanted have not always been approved in Europe.

Fourthly, and lastly, the Government could require CCTV to be installed at key points in all licensed horse abattoirs which do not currently have it. That would go some way towards giving an owner confidence that their horse would be put down efficiently and properly at the end of its life.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and thank him for securing this short but important debate on equine welfare. I hope that Lady Higgins will soon be better. I declare an interest as I have a highland pony stud and a small rural riding centre in North Yorkshire.

A great deal of work goes into looking after equines and it is not cheap. There is the upkeep of the buildings, grassland management, farrier bills, staff wages, vets’ bills, fodder and insurance, as well as passport and microchip costs, and there should always be respect for the animals, even if they are difficult. All horses, ponies, donkeys and related animals have to have a horse passport, which identifies an animal by its height and species and states whether it can be used for food at the end of its life. Last week I signed four passports for my last year’s foals. I hope that they will never go for meat.

The Highland Pony Society used to have a better system, as foals were registered as progeny and then had full registration at the age of three, when they had the correct colour and height. Many highlands change their foal colour, which means that the passports have to be corrected when they are fully grown. What suggestions do the Government have to improve the welfare crisis and deal with the increase in fly-grazing and fly-grazed horses? Has the legislation which recently passed through Parliament not helped?

I strongly support the proposal for CCTV to be mandatory in UK slaughterhouses to monitor whether welfare standards are adhered to. There is no doubt that cameras make a big difference in detecting crimes of all sorts. All animals should have both their passport and their microchip checked on arrival and be respected with kindness at the time of death. I hope that the Minister agrees with that. Would legislation be required to make CCTV mandatory? I hope the Minister will give us an answer tonight.

Each year, around 50% of veterinary surgeons registered to practise in the UK are from overseas, with the vast majority coming from the EU. I have often had student vets on two weeks’ work experience to learn about horses. One of the best came from the Dick veterinary college in Edinburgh and was Russian. I hope that foreign students will not be restricted because of Brexit. In the UK we have some very important animal charities. It is essential that we work together to promote high standards for equidae in Europe. I hope that the UK will not become isolated and that we will continue to be part of these important initiatives.

I have been taking part in a grass sickness research project. Grass sickness is a most horrible condition and claims many equines in various parts of the country. We live in hope that a cure will be found one day.

My Lords, when I served as a junior Minister in MAFF under my noble friend Lord Deben, I had responsibility for horses on farms. My noble friend Lady Trumpington had responsibility for racehorses—a duty which required her to make weekly inspections of Newmarket Racecourse, or so she said.

The one big gap in policing welfare standards was that horses kept in livery yards or stables were not inspected by any government or local government department. I think that that is still the case today and I suggest that is where we have a welfare problem. My concern is based on the evidence of my own eyes, which I see from the train window every week. I see scruffy bits of land alongside the railway tracks which have been carved up into little “pony paddocks” with a couple of horses in each. I am appalled at the state of these paddocks. I was born and brought up on a farm, and I do not have a townie’s misplaced view of fields of knee-high, flowering meadow grass. But I know that horses cannot survive on bare mud and patches of grass half an inch long. The stabling may be an old portakabin or container, with some bales of hay scattered about. The supplementary food is grossly inadequate. I see horses standing ankle-deep in freezing mud, with a tatty bit of canvas as a warming rug. The conditions I see fall way below the welfare standards Defra would tolerate in farm animals.

It is left to the RSPCA to enforce welfare, but I think it is a politically motivated organisation and I do not trust it to conduct impartial prosecutions. Therefore, I urge my noble friend that either Defra or local government should take responsibility for this gap.

I turn now to the slaughter of horses at the end of life. I cannot find accurate statistics on the numbers slaughtered in UK slaughterhouses—they seem to range from 3,000 to 8,000. There are demands for CCTV in all horse slaughterhouses, and I support that demand. However, let us be clear that, whatever abuses may occur in UK slaughterhouses, they pale into insignificance in comparison to Europe, where standards of transport and slaughter are not a patch on those in the UK. We used to have the wonderful minimum value rule in the UK, whereby no horse or pony could be transported to Europe unless it was valued at more than £300. That rule permitted valuable racehorses to be moved, with owners knowing full well that horses would receive excellent welfare treatment because they were valuable.

On the other hand, the rule also stopped end-of-life horses and past-it ponies being treated cruelly, since they could not be transported for days on end from England to Italy and Spain for slaughter. But the rule fell foul of the EU, where horses are just another trading commodity. Will the Minister therefore investigate putting a complete ban on the live movement of end-of-life, low-value horses so that we can stop cruelty of movement and slaughter on the continent when we leave the EU? There is absolutely nothing we can do to enforce the animal transport laws in Europe, as lorries drive for days on end to Italy and Spain, the main consumers of live horsemeat. I conclude that the only way we can save our horses from cruelty is not to export them live.

I suspect it is the case, however, that we have now lost the capacity to deal with all end-of-life horses ourselves. The knackers’ yards that we used to have could utilise horse carcasses, but they are largely gone. If end-of-life horses and ponies are not sent for meat, there is a disposal cost of anything from £200 to £1,000, which horse owners may not be willing to pay. It is no good saying that we should slaughter them here and export the meat, because the Italians and the Spanish want them killed locally, irrespective of where the horses came from originally. Will my noble friend tell me whether we could, theoretically, bring back the minimum value scheme when we leave the EU? Do we have the capacity to slaughter all our end-of-life horses here, and, if we do, would we be able to export the meat so that there is no disposal cost to horse owners at the end of life?

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for putting down this Question for Short Debate and understand that he cannot be with us due to a family illness. We are also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, for stepping in to ask this Question today. I should first declare an interest as I am, along with my noble friend Lady Mallalieu, a trustee of the National Association of Stable Staff, which is a trade union affiliated to the TUC and represents stable staff employed in the horseracing industry. I want to pay tribute to the members of NASS for the important work they do in the horseracing industry in helping deliver some of the best equine standards in the world.

In my brief remarks I want to focus on the horseracing industry and its work to deliver, as I said, some of the best standards in the world—and we should take some satisfaction from that. The British Horseracing Authority is the body responsible for the regulation of horseracing and has an excellent record of working with the Government, the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare, NASS and many other organisations to deliver standards that are in excess of those required by legislation. It is fair to say that racehorses are some of the best looked-after horses in Britain. High welfare standards are demanded of everyone in the industry and none of the 1,400-plus meetings can go ahead unless the equine welfare standards demanded by the BHA have been satisfied. The industry is open and transparent about the risks involved, about which we all know. No sport is without risks, and the key is to learn from and mitigate them. Equine fatality has fallen in the industry in the past 20 years. It is down now to 0.2%—a very low rate indeed. Detailed data are kept, and that has helped the industry progress. After the racehorse retires, work is undertaken as it moves on to other things, is rehomed and retrained.

I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, a couple of questions. In his response to the debate, will he tell the House how his department works with the British Horseracing Authority to learn and develop best practice? What discussions does the department have with the RSPCA and other welfare organisations to improve equine welfare standards? Does he agree that care at the professional level has had a positive effect on the welfare of horses generally, notwithstanding what we have heard from other noble Lords in this debate? Finally, does he think that the legislation is sufficient at present to protect the welfare of horses, and when did the department last routinely review the legislation in this area?

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for bringing forward this debate. Animal welfare is of great concern to the British people and it is very appropriate that we give it due regard in this House. In considering this topic, I begin with a general observation; the longer I am in this House, the more I realise that, for many issues—not all, of course—the problems relate not so much to a lack of legislation but rather to a failure to communicate, apply and above all enforce existing legislation. This is particularly pertinent to this topic, which is why I begin by making the point, and why I will reiterate it later.

Time prevents me going into great detail on specific welfare issues, and these have been prioritised in a commendable recent report by the University of Bristol veterinary school. Suffice it to say that there are in-life issues and there are end-of-life issues. Many in-life welfare problems arise because of the inadequate management of horses. Some of these can be addressed by more education and information, but many, particularly those which arise because of inattention to care and which may partly reflect the relatively low cash value of horses, to which there has been reference already, require detection, intervention and the enforcement of current laws such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is an excellent piece of legislation.

There are also issues concerning end of life and humane slaughter. While horses in the UK are not regarded as food animals, thousands are slaughtered each year to provide meat exported for human consumption. The ability of horses to enter this trade enhances their value at the end of life. Sadly, however, covert videos have shown how brutally some horses may be treated at slaughter. This could be addressed by mandatory CCTV in all equine slaughterhouses—and access to that recorded material by independent authorities. Confidence on the part of owners that their horses will be humanely slaughtered, and access to what is an affordable means of euthanasia, would do much to improve equine welfare.

At all life-cycle stages, accurate horse identification is key to enabling adequate monitoring of welfare. Although the microchipping of horses has been a legal requirement since 2009, there is still no single national database for microchipped horses here in the UK, although a new European regulation was introduced at the beginning of last year which requires that. We urgently need legislation implementing the EU requirements.

In summary, will the Government consider making CCTV mandatory in equine slaughterhouses? With respect to microchipping, when will a single database be in place and will the Government consider requiring the microchipping of all horses, including those born before 2009? Finally, will the Government consider making it a statutory responsibility of local authorities and the police to enforce the existing Animal Welfare Act 2006 and provide the resources to enable this? These are all modest and achievable aims, which are the least we should provide to safeguard the welfare of one of Britain’s most cherished animals.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing his debate on this important subject today. I am not surprised that it has attracted a big field. I declare an interest as a lifelong enthusiast of all matters equine. Indeed, even though it does not look like it these days, I rode for 20 years as an amateur jockey. Also, my wife is a long-established breeder and showman of Welsh mountain section A ponies.

The adequate treatment and welfare of equines should be paramount in our society. I intend to be brief and touch on three matters. First, on the rehoming and retraining of racehorses, some 4,000 horses leave the racing industry annually for a variety of reasons. Injury, age, attitude and inability are just a few. Some go for breeding. Sadly, only a proportion are capable of being rehomed, with many going to excellent homes where they are retrained as competition horses and even as hacks and pets. A variety of charities and other establishments in this country specialise in providing new homes and opportunities for these animals. Those bodies do excellent work.

Secondly, in some parts of the wider equine world, standards of equine husbandry are sadly lacking. Far too many animals of poor pedigree are being bred, and in considerable numbers. Often, male equines are left as entire when their conformation, pedigree and temperament are highly suspect, as is their genetic make-up. Their contribution to the equine gene pool is substandard. Many of these randomly bred animals are kept by fly-grazing and in poor conditions. Visit the pony sales and witness the unwanted foals being sold for a pittance for slaughter. Can my noble friend say what steps Defra is taking to combat that situation and to encourage owners to breed responsibly and selectively, and is he able to comment on the policies to this end of the various breed societies?

Thirdly, I am concerned that the RSPCA does not always live up to its perceived high standards when it comes to equine welfare. Perhaps it should concentrate less on politics and more on animal welfare. A number of years ago my wife loaned out our daughter’s riding mare while she was abroad. The mare was to be stabled at a local DIY livery. We heard some while later that the animal was in appalling condition, as the girl who had borrowed the animal had moved away and left the mare behind. We went to see the mare, which had become a hat rack, covered in serious haematomas. We immediately rescued it and our vet’s bills were in excess of £1,000. Our vet was shocked at the condition of the animal. He thought that it was a disgrace. We informed the RSPCA, which sent an inspector who, when he saw the mare, informed us that he had seen far worse cases and was not prepared to take the matter further. That is disgraceful.

Finally, when it comes to the end of life for our equine friends, they should be treated with compassion, dignity and the respect that they richly deserve. My wife has a strict policy of her animals being put to sleep at home, quietly and kindly in their familiar surroundings. We used to send them to a horse abattoir, but the last time we took some stock to that place, the conditions were appalling, the staff could not speak English, there were rotting pony pelts on pallets in the yards and the place was filthy. Never again will we do that. What is Defra’s position with regard to welfare standards at equine abattoirs, and what prosecutions over the last five years has Defra instigated against such substandard operations? Will it take steps to ensure that random, unannounced visits are made by local authority inspectors and vets and ensure that CCTV systems are mandatorily required to monitor abattoir staff and working practices?

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for securing this debate and to the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, for so ably filling his slot. Horses, too, have formed a part of my life—hacking, hunting and riding ceremonially in London. I was proud to be a trustee of World Horse Welfare for a five-year period that concluded in 2015.

I have spoken in your Lordships House before on matters equine, ranging from the registration of farriers to the problems of long-distance transport, which I will touch on in a moment. This is a short debate and I get the feeling that we are racing through it in order to complete it within the allotted time span, but this is a subject that we could quite easily take three hours on. However, I am grateful for the time that is available to us today.

First, it seems in the UK that we have a highly romantic view of the horse compared with the variable view that is taken of dogs, cats or perhaps ferrets. The horse is met with almost universal acclaim and respect—and quite rightly too. Most people who know nothing of horses would conclude that they are probably dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle, but that does not stop the universal love for the horse that we in this country have seen. One only has to exercise a 16.3 half-hunter, groomed to within an inch of its life, in central London and stop anywhere near a footpath to be immediately surrounded by a crowd of people—not all tourists: many of them office workers—determined to explode the horse by filling it full of polo mints and chocolate to understand that.

But that love of the horse, as has already been alluded to, leads to a massive ignorance of what is really going on behind the scenes. We have heard a lot of that before and I concur with the views that have been expressed. It leads to a growth of abuse and neglect of the horse, and all of that was ably identified in the World Horse Welfare report in July of last year, Horses in our Hands, which was referred to by an earlier speaker. The welfare needs of the horse have been ignored and I will cover just three points in this short debate. Two have been covered already, so I shall repeat them purely for emphasis, and one has not yet been mentioned.

The first is the issue of equine identification. There is no real system of enforceable equine ID in place, which leads to very shady practice, as we have heard. What we need is a tough, robust, user-friendly and enforceable passport system backed with a central database. I do not think anyone has mentioned the central database that would have to be put in place behind that, but it should certainly be a matter of some government concern. Will the Minister comment on that issue particularly? What we have is a system that is coming in late and is patchy. Microchipping has been mentioned retrospectively and local authority enforcement of that system is required.

Secondly, on welfare at slaughter, £500 has been mentioned, but it costs £650 in the Cotswolds to slaughter a horse and dispose of the carcass. Many people cannot get anywhere near to that. Of course, that is exacerbated by the reduction in the number of slaughterhouses generally that we have seen over the last few decades. CCTV installation would do much to sort out that problem and bring transparency and a degree of mandatory control. I will not go on because those points have already been made. Food Standards Agency involvement would be essential.

Lastly, if my voice will stand up to this, on the question of long-distance transport of horses, one tends to think that this is a problem of horses leaving Poland or Estonia and going down in transporters to the toe of Italy, southern Greece or southern France. That is so, but at the same time it also involves horses travelling from this country. I have spoken in your Lordships’ House before on this issue. It is estimated conservatively that 50,000 horses are so moved across Europe each year. That is days and days of travel and thousands of miles, and the horses are often deprived of rest, food and water. Yet an EU transport regulation—of 2005, to be precise—is largely not enforced across Europe. That is backed up of course by the EU scientific adviser, who has said to the whole of the EU that the maximum travel should be 12 hours and then the journey should be broken for food, rest and water. That is largely not being done. So my question to the Minister is one that I have asked in your Lordships’ House before. What are we doing to support and encourage other countries in the EU to enforce that regulation?

My Lords, given what has been said by previous speakers, I should declare that I am not a horse rider but I have always thought that horses are magnificent beasts, deserving of the utmost respect. Most of us here, whether we are riders or non-riders, would agree that the majority, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, rightly said in her opening remarks, are well cared for by people who respect them. However, it is clear that welfare problems remain and it is the equine charities that have to pick up the pieces and rehabilitate horses before finding loving homes for them. I pay tribute to the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare, Redwings and a charity local to me in Surrey, the Mane Chance Sanctuary, which does a fantastic job of rescuing and rehabilitating abandoned and older horses and then integrating them back into the local community. All equine charities have more horses in their care than they have spaces for, and the majority need to be put into private boarding facilities. The increasing costs of doing this are unsustainable for all charities.

It is good news that the number of abandoned horses on public and private land has reduced since fly-grazing legislation was adopted by the Government, but enforcement is still patchy and it is arguable that the issue is given insufficient priority by local authorities, and certainly there is a lack of resources from some. As the noble Baroness rightly identified, however, local authorities are hampered by the inability to prove horse ownership. It is the law that horses should be passported and that those born after 2009 should be microchipped as well, but there are no consequences for non-compliance. Moreover, the 2009 cut-off is causing real problems, as the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, have both said. The recent legislation on dog microchipping stipulates that it applies to all dogs, so my question for the Government is: if it is good enough for dogs, why is it not good enough for horses? What plans do the Government have to make retrospective microchipping mandatory? We know also from the Animal Welfare Act 2006 that it has to be statutory or it just will not be enforced.

Horses are left to suffer in far too great numbers. Last year the RSPCA collected 1,336 horses, the third highest number ever, of which 70% had been neglected. Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, I wish to commend the RSPCA on the prosecution work that it undertakes. I would respectfully argue that the association is not politically motivated. We may disagree with the priorities of some charities, but they are charities and therefore we cannot say that they are politically motivated. I would also point to the support of World Horse Welfare and the Blue Cross for the excellent prosecution work that the RSPCA undertakes. Frankly, my request to the Government is not to remove this work from the association but for them to make a firm commitment to support the vital work being done by the RSPCA and others. However, it is my understanding that the RSPCA undertakes 80% of all prosecutions, and we in this House should be grateful for its work not only with horses but with all animals.

It is clear that more needs to be done, including making retrospective microchipping a priority, to rescue horses from the miserable existence to which too many of them are still condemned.

My Lords, I am sorry to hear of the family problems experienced by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and I wish his wife a speedy recovery to good health. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, for introducing this debate on his behalf. I declare an interest as a farmer, but I have never had any horses on the farm.

While issues around horse welfare go wider than fly-grazing, this debate nevertheless allows the House to look at the issue one year on following the introduction of the Control of Horses Act 2015. I, too, would like to thank the RSPCA for its work and for the briefing update because it gives us the wider national picture. I would also like to thank profusely Jenny Seagrove of the Mane Chance Sanctuary, who has garnered extensive opinion from her colleagues in the Home Counties, where the problem could be said to be at its most acute.

Speakers in the debate have highlighted the pressing issues around horse welfare brought on following the downturn in the economic climate in 2012, while uncontrolled overbreeding continues. The RSPCA estimates that the number of horses being fly-grazed has decreased from 3,500 to around 3,000, with what is still patchy enforcement of the legislation. However, comments received via the Mane Chance Sanctuary are that while the legislation is helpful, it has by no means provided a solution. It has simply generated more frequent movements of herds from one fly-grazed area to another, often at the eleventh hour. The legislation has simply aided faster action where cases are deemed of a high level of importance.

This patchy enforcement highlights the varying standards of different local authorities that fly-grazers exploit, especially as local authorities have not received any financial resources to deal with the problems. It is apparent that local authorities often do not quite grasp the severity of the problem, do not fully understand the current legislation, and do not take action when presented with the evidence that could catch the perpetrators in the act. It appears that, with no set protocol in place, no one from the police, local authorities, trading standards, animal charities and so on appears to be willing or able to take charge.

Landowners are also responsible, whether the land is private, corporate or council owned. As the land used is often rough and of poor quality, it is rarely monitored and owners may have no knowledge of what is happening on their property. In some cases they do not realise their ownership until they are presented with Land Registry documents, with the result that some herds go unnoticed for months. I understand that some companies and councils supply Travellers with grazing but do not put in place any form of contractual agreement or grazing licence, and any that do seem not to include any animal welfare provisions. The recent World Horse Welfare conference saw an emphasis on the importance of the mandatory use of CCTV, which has also been mentioned extensively by other speakers in the debate.

As time is short, I ask the Minister to ensure that his department follows up on the issues surrounding the inadequacies of the horse passport system and makes retrospective microchipping mandatory, following the consultation on the EU regulation 2015/262. Can the Minister clarify how the passport-issuing organisations report on their work to the department? I am sure he will agree that the lack of a central database raises questions about the value of the passport system in promoting equine welfare.

On other areas covered by the regulation, is the department following up on concerns regarding the licensing of breeders and trainers? Currently there is no regulation of trainers so that anyone can call themselves a horse trainer or behaviourist without any relevant education. Could Defra work with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council to draw up a regulation for qualified horse professionals to replace that for “experienced” horse professionals; that is, those persons who often use outdated methods involving the use of whips to meet a quality standard.

Horse welfare should go far wider than being largely confined to issues of neglect, cruelty and overbreeding. There is a need for improved education into the knowledge of good horse management and behaviour prior to ownership. A horse welfare inquiry could be undertaken by the EFRA Committee of the other place to call for evidence and report on the need to enhance attitudes from well-meaning but sometimes poorly informed owners and riders, who rely on traditional methods that are often entrenched in pony clubs, passing on bad habits to the next generation of children. It seems that, along with the hard riding hat, the whip is still a standard piece of equipment. Any such report could provide excellent clarification for Defra to reassess the guidance and code of practice issued by the Minister’s department. I would be grateful if he would agree to take this forward.

My Lords, perhaps I may in turn thank my noble friend Lord Higgins for securing this debate and my noble friend Lady Chisholm for opening it on his behalf. I too send my best wishes to my noble friend and to Lady Higgins.

I declare my interest of long standing in the welfare of the horses and my membership of the British Horse Society. I have ridden horses for much of my life and it is fair to say that I have fallen off quite a few. The exhilaration that the horse provides is difficult to describe adequately, and indeed I am looking forward very much to my forthcoming visit to the Horse Trust at Speen.

When I use the word “equine”, I of course include horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids. Indeed, since time immemorial the equine and the human have been in partnership. There are now just under 1 million horses in the UK, and according to the British Equestrian Trade Association’s national equestrian survey of 2015, the economic value of the equestrian sector stands at £4.3 billion of consumer spending each year across a wide range of goods and services, and has increased from £3.8 billion in 2011.

There have been and are a range of uses that we have put our horses towards. There is also the range of breeds we have in this country, from the wonderful Suffolk Punch to the thoroughbred we all enjoy racing—and sometimes riding if we can stay on board—and the native semi-feral moorland ponies that are so iconic in so many wonderful moorland places of our isles. For all these breeds, it is essential that their welfare is upmost in owners’ and custodians’ minds. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for highlighting the high standards in the racing world, in particular the dedication of the stable staff who care so much about their horses, which I have seen for myself.

My noble friend Lady Chisholm referred to the research Horses in Our Hands conducted by the University of Bristol and funded by World Horse Welfare into the welfare status of equines in England and Wales. This is valuable research. The overall theme of its recommendations is that everyone involved in equines, including government, should help educate owners and keepers about the importance of meeting the needs of their animals. One of the issues highlighted is inappropriate nutrition. It is also clear that too many horses are suffering from unresolved stress and behaviour associated with pain. These are all matters principally resolved by educating horse owners. We all need to play our part.

The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, asked about the code of practice. She is absolutely right: the Equine Sector Council has been most helpful in helping us to update this. I hope we can make progress on this.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, asked about a review of certain matters. The Animal Welfare Act, which applies to racehorses, was last reviewed in 2010 by the Government and EFRA. The BHA and the RSPCA worked closely together to set standards at racetracks. The code of practice also applies to racehorses. I will look at what the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, said about some of the other matters to do with behaviourists and otherwise. Clearly, we want to ensure that the welfare of horses is best achieved.

I am also pleased to confirm to my noble friend Lady Chisholm, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and the noble Lord, Lord Dear, that Defra is making good progress with the central equine database, which I expect to be ready in the summer. It will hold records of all horses currently identified with a UK passport-issuing organisation, including details of the owner of the horse.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Trees and Lord Grantchester, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and my noble friend Lady Chisholm, asked about microchipping of all horses. Defra will consult in February on proposals for implementing a new EU regulation on the identification of horses in England, including whether all horses should be microchipped. The identification system can help trace owners of horses, but only when owners are complying with the law. Unfortunately, all too many horses that are mistreated are not correctly identified. In these cases, the database will not hold a record and it will, I fear, still be difficult for local authorities to trace the owner. I hope the database will help us in this regard.

I acknowledge and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, for her leading role in bringing into effect the Control of Horses Act 2015. The Act has been widely welcomed. Animal welfare organisations—I was looking at the RSPCA’s briefing for the debate—acknowledge that the Act has helped to reduce the number of fly-grazing incidents. Clearly we look for further progress on this matter, but it is the case that this is a piece of legislation that has the basis on which I hope we can make proper progress.

We are currently reviewing the animal establishments licensing regimes with a view to modernising them. We will shortly be publishing our firmed-up proposals following a consultation last year.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra referred to the welfare of horses in livery yards. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause an animal unnecessary suffering and also to fail to provide for an animal’s welfare needs. I would advise anyone who has concerns about a particular livery yard to report it to the relevant local authority, World Horse Welfare, the RSPCA or other animal welfare charities.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury asked what the Government are doing about tackling overbreeding. As with many issues, the answer lies in better education and information for owners. I believe that action lies with the whole of the sector and is one of the most difficult challenges facing us all today.

My noble friend also asked whether we have any sort of controls over the RSPCA. The RSPCA is a charitable organisation that works closely with other equine specialist welfare charities, such as World Horse Welfare and Redwings. I am sure there may be occasions when organisations could handle cases better—I am sure there are many occasions when I could handle my cases at the Dispatch Box better—but when it happens it is important that charities learn from their experiences and make improvements.

On equine slaughter and CCTV, there was an issue for owners, that of “delayed death”. I acknowledge the work of a range of horse charities that are encouraging horse owners to consider this difficult subject, but it is important to plan ahead and so avoid one of the key issues the World Horse Welfare report highlighted.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra asked about the numbers of horses slaughtered in UK slaughterhouses. In England, 3,329 horses were slaughtered in slaughterhouses in 2016, which reflects a continued fall since 2012, when 8,848 horses were slaughtered. What is interesting is 99% of equines were killed in slaughterhouses that have CCTV. Horses may also be humanely killed in other places such as knacker’s yards, where there are also and must be strict rules concerning the welfare of horses. The Government agree that CCTV has a very useful role to play. We will keep these matters under review. The route to achieve any change would be through secondary legislation—a point the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, raised. Regardless of whether there is CCTV in slaughterhouses there are clear legal obligations on all operators to have appropriate monitoring procedures in place for all slaughter operations. Of course, official veterinarians of the FSA are present during slaughter operations to monitor and enforce animal health and welfare regulations.

The point the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, made about foreign and EU nationals working here is clearly one of the issues that needs to be resolved as part of our negotiations. I am well aware of the importance of what vets do for us.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra asked about a complete ban on live movement of low-value horses for export and the application of stricter export controls on horses to prevent them going for slaughter on the continent when the UK leaves the EU. These clearly are matters we will wish to consider as we define our policy on leaving the EU. We have recently supported calls within the European Union to reduce the maximum journey times for horses. I hope that gives encouragement to the noble Lord, Lord Dear.

We work on the international stage, where we are considered to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. Indeed, we are spending about £9.8 million each year combating exotic diseases. That of course includes diseases affecting equines. With the support of international animal welfare organisations, we try to raise the global standards of animal welfare in forums such as the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Even with the best legislation in the world, without people working together in partnership we will never be able to achieve our ultimate goal of improving welfare for equines. That is a point my noble friend Lady Chisholm made very powerfully. That is why it is so important not only that we have effective organisations, many of which have been described in this debate, but that they are prepared to work alongside each other. This is where the Equine Sector Council plays such an important role.

It is the role of government to set out the best equine welfare standards and legislation. To achieve this goal, we work closely with World Horse Welfare, Redwings, the British Horse Society and many other organisations. I join my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, in paying tribute to the work that those charities undertake in promoting and raising standards in equine welfare. I also acknowledge the British Equine Veterinary Association, which promotes veterinary and allied sciences related to horse welfare and provides a forum for discussion and exchange of views.

Many of us in this debate have a lifetime of association with the horse. It has undoubtedly given us some of the greatest pleasures and privileges. I believe that this is shared by so many people beyond your Lordships’ House. We have clearly had a brisk gallop tonight. Of all the animals, we owe the horse a very great deal. High standards of husbandry and that knowledge being shared widely are our goals. It is incumbent on us all to work together to advance their welfare.