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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Horse Passports (England) Regulations 2003

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Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 11 December 2003

[Mr. Bill Olner in the chair]

Horse Passports (England) Regulations 2003

9.55 am

The Chairman: Before I call the Opposition spokesman to move the motion, I draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that amending regulations are available on the Table in the Room, but we are not debating them today. We are debating the defective regulations.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Horse Passports (England) Regulations 2003 (S.I., 2003, No. 2780.)

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Olner, and thank you for looking after what I hope will be a largely uncontroversial and warm-hearted discussion of an extraordinarily important issue for the horse world—

The Chairman: In keeping with the spirit of the season.

Mr. Gray: As you rightly say, Mr. Olner. You and I have given long service to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over the years and you know how uncontroversial and non-confrontational I am in my approach, as is the Minister. I am sure that our debate will be good natured and helpful.

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab): And brief.

Mr. Gray: I am sure that the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary would like the debate to be brief so that he can go off and do his Christmas shopping, but it is on a matter of grave concern to the horse world and a number of important arguments need to be advanced. We shall do that as briefly as possible and try to accommodate the hon. Gentleman so that he can get away as soon as possible.

On the face of it, the statutory instrument is harmless and beneficial. Its purpose, as we all know, is to bring the United Kingdom into line with much of the rest of Europe in banning the inadvertent inclusion of veterinary medicines in the human food chain. The regulations have been in place elsewhere in Europe for a long time—the explanatory notes at the back refer rather quaintly to EEC directives dating from 1990 and 1992. The regulations have been in force in continental Europe for 10 or more years, and the purpose of the statutory instrument is to bring them into force in the United Kingdom. One could argue that the regulations may prevent damaging medicines from entering the human food chain. Bute is

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commonly used in horses and it would be unhelpful if human beings consumed it. We all welcome the determination to prevent that.

The United Kingdom has had a derogation from the regulations for some 10 years. Immediately after I spoke at the Equine Forum in north London in 1998 or 1999, I spoke to officials from the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They introduced the regulations and I remember an official saying that there were three options. First, we could seek a derogation for a further 10 years; that was the most obvious and least difficult option. Secondly, it would be possible to put a minimalist provision in place, so that any horse presented at an abattoir handling meat for human consumption would have to have with it a document stating what medicines it had received, whereas most horses, which are not presented for killing for eating, would not have to have such a document. The official suggested that that would be acceptable. Thirdly, the gold-plated option would be compulsory horse passports for every four-legged creature in England.

The Department's consultation paper published on 7 July 2000 repeated those three options: the minimum, the middle or the third way, and the gold-plated. At a meeting with at MAFF on 31 March 2000, Mr. Beech laid out the three options perfectly plainly. Option one was the bare minimum, according to which

    ''Under this option if someone was sending a horse to a slaughter house for human consumption it must have a passport containing the new section guaranteeing it has not been given drugs with MRLs for six months prior to slaughter.''

The complete solution, as Mr. Beech described it, was

    ''To ensure that maximum control was exercised, one solution could be that all equidae would have to be issued with some form of registration document'',

although he said that that would be rather complicated and bureaucratic. However,

    ''in between the 'bare minimum' and a virtual total registration policy there was a third way which could be feasible'',

which would

    ''specify that passports were only necessary for horses which had been 'moved'''.

MAFF was working on what it meant to move a horse and how it could introduce a definition and passports in order to allow a horse to be moved. However, the document notes that Mr. Beech

    ''recognised that there were incremental advantages to the horse industry which had long expressed a wish for greater levels of registration of equidae—for improved breeding purposes, and implementation of welfare controls.''

Mr. Beech of MAFF said plainly that there was no need for universal compulsory passports. He said that the Government could try for a derogation to delay the whole thing for a further 10 years if they wanted to, and that he recommended the minimalist option, which would require some document when moving animals. He said that he was working on the issue of movement, but noted that the horse industry might want to go further.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): The hon. Gentleman is taking us through an interesting set of meetings and statements from some time in the past. I

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do not want anyone in Committee or outside it who may read the record to be misled. He will remember that we have discussed horse passports on a number of occasions since I assumed responsibility for the issue. I have made it clear before, and wish to do so again, that the advice that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was given was absolutely clear: neither the minimalist option nor the third way, as he referred to them, would fulfil the requirements of European legislation. Far from a gold-plated option, we have gone for the minimum that is necessary to meet European legal requirements.

That legal advice was clear. Different legal advice may have been given in the longer—term background. The hon. Gentleman was right to quote previous comments in order to set the context, but I have explained to the House on more than one occasion that the advice that we have been given by our lawyers is that only the option that we are considering, without gold plating, will meet the European requirements.

Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the Minister, particularly as I had not grasped his point. He seems to be arguing that there is a legal requirement that 100 per cent. compulsory passports for all equidae would be the only legally acceptable option to the European Union. I find it extraordinary that the minutes of meetings with his officials that took place only two or three years ago give completely contrary instructions. They say that it would be perfectly acceptable to consider three options. Furthermore, I think that I am right in saying—I will check the end of the letter—that the official consultation document of 7 July 2000, which begins

    ''Dear Sir or Madam . . . Horse Passports . . . I am writing to you because we need to implement'',

is signed by the Minister.

Alun Michael: May I help?

Mr. Gray: No. The Minister had long enough to make his rather otiose point. The official MAFF consultation document lays out the fact that there were three options.

Alun Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: Can the Minister contain himself for a second? If he says that he has been given—

Alun Michael: On a point of order, Mr. Olner. The hon. Gentleman is referring to MAFF documents. DEFRA came into being, and I took up my present role, in 2001.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order. I remind the Minister that he will have an opportunity to reply to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gray: The fact that the Minister dismisses a document produced by MAFF as ancient provides a most interesting glimpse into the inner workings of the Labour Government machine. He says that, because he did not assume his role until 2001, we should treat as rubbish and ignore all the heavy work done by important civil servants. ''I'm now the Minister,'' he says, ''and I can tell you now that the legal advice I've

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been given is that we must have the gold-plated, 100 per cent. compulsory passport for all equidae.'' If he is saying that that is definitely the legal advice that he has been given, he is inviting the courts to examine whether a lesser solution would be possible under European law. The right hon. Gentleman says that he was told plainly that no legal option other than the one before us was available, despite the fact that his now discredited MAFF civil servants gave him contrary advice only two years ago.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of a DEFRA press release of 14 February 2002, which quotes the Minister? It does not mention that legal advice indicated that there was only one way of implementing the directive. Indeed, the notes to editors state that ''The Decision''—the EU decision—

    ''requires all horses (except those specially reared for slaughter . . .) to have a passport recording the veterinary medicines administered, if the horse is ultimately intended for human consumption.''

There was no reference to the legal advice that the Minister has just mentioned.

Mr. Gray: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I am aware of another occasion on which the Minister said that he had decided to implement a full-scale compulsory horse passport scheme, rather than that he had been told to do so. However, let us take his word at face value. He says that he was given binding legal advice and that he could take no other course of action. That is fine, and we will examine that claim in the courts later. However, it is more important that the Committee examines the substance behind the regulations—the reasons why the Minister wants to introduce compulsory horse passports.

The first issue is straightforward. Of course, we do not want veterinary medicines in the human food chain, but the fact is that we in this country do not eat horses. Many Committee members would not eat dogs or cats. Personally, I view eating horses as a revolting practice. Horses are companion animals, and we should not encourage that revolting practice in any shape, size or form. However, each year approximately 10,000 horses—a small proportion of the UK's one million horses—are killed in the UK and exported abroad to be eaten.

Nearly all the horses that go for slaughter are two or three-year-old racehorses that have been injured. There are only two slaughterhouses in Britain that kill horses for eating: one is in Bristol. Most racehorses already have passports and do not need further documentation to go to the slaughterhouse. Given that we in this country do not eat horse, option two would therefore have sufficed: anyone who wanted to take a horse to a slaughterhouse to be killed for human consumption would need valid documentation to prove that it had been fed no harmful veterinary medicines within the previous six months. I therefore regard the problem of veterinary medicines in the food chain as an excuse for the regulations rather than the real reason behind them.

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Ministers have often argued that horse passports will bring some benefits for horse welfare in some parts of the horse world. The bureaucrats say that having a comprehensive list of every horse in the country and a piece of paper for every horse will improve the way in which horses are looked after. However, I invite anyone who shares that opinion to explain two things: first, what is wrong with horse welfare at the moment—what in theory will the regulations improve; and, secondly, how will horse passports improve horse welfare? If ignorant, wicked and vile people in this nation are not looking after their horses properly—I fear that there are such people, and I have been involved in charitable work to improve the quality of horse welfare—how will introducing horse passports improve matters? Those ignorant people will not fill out forms at the post office to obtain a horse passport. Decent and sensible horse owners like myself will obtain passports, but vile and wicked people will ignore the regulations. How will they be enforced to ensure that every horse is looked after? Even then, how will that solve current welfare problems?

I find it hard to imagine that there is an upside to the regulations in welfare terms. The Pony Club, among others, argues that in fact there is a significant downside. People with low-grade, old or sick horses will set them loose, or slaughter them themselves and bury the body to avoid obtaining a passport. There may well be a horse welfare downside to passports, rather than an upside.

 
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Prepared 11 December 2003