Back to warmwell.com website


http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmhansrd/cm040331/halltext/40331h03.htm#40331h03_head0

Horse Exports

2 pm

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Good afternoon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I begin by declaring an interest. I was brought up with and around ponies; I am today the proud owner and part owner of two horses; and I am actively in the market for a suitable little shaggy pony for my four-year-old daughter. So, I cannot pretend to come to this debate from a dispassionate and objective viewpoint.

I feel very strongly about this issue and so should anyone concerned with not only riding, but the wider agenda of animal welfare. I find the prospect of the live export of British horses and ponies to the meat trade of continental Europe an abomination. Although we can be encouraged by the noises emanating from Strasbourg yesterday, we must be in no doubt that the resumption in the trade must be stopped. The Government will ignore the growing anger of thousands of horse lovers at their peril.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael) : The hon. Gentleman and other Members know that the Government's objective is to prevent the development of a trade in live horses for slaughter. Will he explain why he thinks that one might emerge?

Gregory Barker : I am sorry, but I am not at all clear about what the Minister is getting at. I do not think that we disagree about the Government having an objective, however like so many things with this Government, they have targets and objectives but they are very rarely met. We are concerned to ensure that the objective is met and that before the current regime is ended, there is a strong, reliable and robust regime in place. I had exactly that concern last Friday when a Minister in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs failed to turn up for my debate on GM crops. In a way, that is a totally separate issue, but it is in fact similar. The Government may share the objectives but everyone concerned must be sure that the objectives are robust and will be followed through.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Alun Michael : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. This is not a bar room. Will you indicate to whom you are relinquishing the Floor, sir?

Gregory Barker : I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray).

Mr. Gray : I was going to suggest to my hon. Friend an answer that he might have given the Minister. Does my hon. Friend agree that not allowing a market in horses to develop on the continent of Europe is quite different from introducing an absolute, outright ban, which is what we seek?

Gregory Barker : That is the point, and I am sure that the Minister will respond when he has a chance a little later.

Alun Michael : The hon. Gentleman asked about whether the Government have objectives. The answer is

31 Mar 2004 : Column 455WH

yes, and we deliver on them. We are delivering on the objective of preventing the development of a trade in horses for slaughter. That is the priority, rather than giving an appearance of dealing with the issue, which is the great risk.

Gregory Barker : I do not want to pre-empt our hour-and-a-half debate by jumping around from issue to issue. I am sure that the Minister will address those points, but perhaps we may continue in a more logical fashion.

I pay tribute to the remarkable and tireless campaign conducted on behalf of horses and ponies throughout the country by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. His arrival at the Houses of Parliament today mounted on a fine-looking horse is just the latest of his efforts to raise the public's awareness of what could be an impending disaster for British horses. He also hosted an excellent International League for the Protection of Horses reception to highlight the dangers of impending changes.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has been equally tenacious in the battle to get the Government to see sense and stand up for British horses and ponies—he even took the issue up with the Prime Minister in the House last week.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): My hon. Friend is very kind. Does he agree that I was right to be surprised when the Prime Minister did not provide an immediate answer to my question, but had to write to me subsequently? Only a few weeks earlier, he had received a 60,000-signature petition on that very question.

Gregory Barker : My hon. Friend's point is extremely well made. The Minister says that the Government have objectives, but last Wednesday the Leader of the Government was totally oblivious to that big campaign and the serious and deeply felt worries of horse and pony owners. That is why those of us who are concerned about animal welfare are worried.

Whatever warm words the Minister comes up with, the matter has not even registered on the Government's agenda and may be bumped out of the way by other priorities and crises as they come along. We are here today, first and foremost, to put the matter at the heart of the Government's agenda for the next 12 months. We must ensure that they do not get distracted, that they take the matter seriously and that they listen to the concerns of horse and pony lovers throughout the country.

Like my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire and for New Forest, West, I believe that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the kingdom, regardless of political persuasion—I am pleased to see Members from other political parties here today to voice their concern—would find it unforgivable if the Government allowed the resumption of horsemeat trading to sneak through. That trade was stamped out by Stanley Baldwin's Government back in the 1930s.

The horse holds a special place in the affections of the British people, particularly our children. Pony ownership is not the preserve of a privileged few, but a

31 Mar 2004 : Column 456WH

sport and hobby for hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed, for many young families, it is a way of life and financial sacrifices are often made to keep the family pony. A wonderful informal network ensures that elderly ponies are often passed from generation to generation and to new young riders, often for next to nothing except a guarantee that a much-loved family friend will be cared for and looked after responsibly by its new owners. In that way, thousands of families—many of limited means—can enjoy all the fun, happiness and responsibility of owning a pony.

That happy status quo is threatened by the exposure of Britain's ponies to the predatory and insatiable demand of the continental horsemeat market. The market for horsemeat in Europe is not a figment of the British imagination, nor a product of Europhobia. Every year, about 165,000 horses are subjected to horrific journeys, travelling thousands of miles to the EU from eastern Europe or being transported long distances within the rapidly expanding EU, which now stretches from the Baltic to the Atlantic. They are frequently transported in appalling conditions with little or no water or rest, only to be slaughtered when they reach their final destination. The majority of those horses are destined for Italy, which annually imports between 85 and 95 per cent. of Europe's market in live horses. We must not allow our British horses and ponies to suffer the same fate.

Let me remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the basis of the current rules governing the export of ponies and horses.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene before he moves on. I entirely support what he and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire are trying to do. I apologise, as I shall not be here for the rest of the debate—I have to chair the Select Committee inquiry on milk. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is no good isolating the live export of horses and that we should campaign strongly against the export of all livestock that goes from these shores and elsewhere in Europe? I hope that the Opposition also take up that cause.

Gregory Barker : The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, but I want to concentrate on the clear danger facing us today from the live export of horses. I am grateful for his cross-party support, which is much appreciated.

The Exportation of Horses Act 1937 forbade the export of live horses under a certain value from our shores. The minimum limit was deliberately set well above the carcase value and the Act has successfully prevented UK horses from being exported live for slaughter. The European Union granted a dispensation to the UK for that to continue after the creation of the Common Market. That dispensation expired in 1995, but remained part of UK law. Unfortunately, it seems that the Government will not again seek the derogation that we acquired in 1995 with the result that the minimum value legislation is in danger of being lost in the European courts. The overall effect of that would be to allow ponies and horses of any value to be exported from the UK for slaughter. We must not allow that to happen.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 457WH

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): My hon. Friend is putting the case eloquently, but there is one area that concerns me: the indigenous horses of Exmoor, Dartmoor and Bodmin moor, which do not have any protection at all because nobody owns them. They are herded and used for overseas trade. Does he think that we should pressure the Government to close that loophole as well?

Gregory Barker : My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I know that he probably speaks for the whole west country in raising that issue. I do not for one minute pretend that the minimum value legislation is a satisfactory regime for caring for horses and limiting the trade in live exports in the 21st century. It is without doubt in need of updating and we need better legislation to govern the welfare of horses, but as things stand it is the only game in town and we do not want those protections for horses to go without having something equally robust, if not better and more appropriate, in their place.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is certainly making a strong case. He mentioned the debate in Europe yesterday and the agreement to accept an amendment with regard to the draft regulation that will go before Ministers in April. Has he sought advice, or made any assessment, in respect of a comparison between the likely impacts of that amendment and of the Government's proposed solution regarding trained-to-halter restrictions for live exports?

Gregory Barker : I have still to see the full details and to be briefed fully on this matter, but from what I have seen that route seems far better than the rather unsatisfactory DEFRA proposition. I would like DEFRA to grip the opportunity with both hands. There is obviously a great distance between cup and lip when it comes to taking up the proposition from Europe, but I understand that there is no fundamental barrier to prevent Britain from going for it.

Mr. Gray : Perhaps I can assist my hon. Friend—this comes hot-foot from Strasbourg. I understand that the amendments state that it would be perfectly possible for member states to


They would also allow a total national ban


I am pleased to tell him that in response to those amendments Commissioner Byrne said last night that the Commission supports stricter national rules:


So, the European Parliament and the European Commission are happy for us to go ahead with the ban.

Gregory Barker : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point so clearly. What we can be sure of is that the current DEFRA muddle is the least satisfactory alternative to the minimum value legislation. I hope that DEFRA grips this opportunity from Europe and takes it forward in the manner he suggests.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 458WH

Alun Michael : While we are seriously considering clarity, has the hon. Gentleman examined what the current regulations ban? They do not, for instance, provide a ban of the sort that Commissioner Byrne seems to think they do. Will the hon. Gentleman explain the moral grounds on which a ban might be founded? It is important to understand the principles of the approach that he is adopting. He is wrong to say that the opportunity is not being gripped by DEFRA; it is being gripped very firmly. However, we need to get at the principles that underlie the way forward and he is right to say that there is a need for the regulations to be updated.

Gregory Barker : If the Minister allows me, that will emerge in my speech, which I am trying to make. I will make some progress, but if, towards the end of my remarks, he feels that I have not covered that point I will happily return to it. To summarise, we need something that specifically addresses the welfare of horses and is not just a by-product of European legislation.

The situation with regard to the live export of horses is further complicated by the imposition of horse passports. Last weekend, to help to prepare my speech, I visited the Brown Bread horse rescue centre in the village of Ashburnham in my constituency. The trustee of the centre, Tony Smith, showed me and my daughter around the site, which does fantastic work in rescuing and looking after unwanted horses and ponies from all around East Sussex and well beyond. The centre has even taken in ill-treated animals from as far away as Greece.

From June, however, sanctuaries and retirement and rescue centres, such as the wonderful Brown Bread centre, will come under massive financial threat from the Government's bureaucratic horse passport scheme, which could drive them out of existence. A lot of people do not realise what a shoestring such operations work on. They have the most minuscule of budgets and there is no flexibility to accommodate a sudden surge in costs. Mr. Smith is subsidising the centre out of his own pocket.

Those centres are so worried because, technically, horse passports are being introduced to protect humans who consume horsemeat by ensuring that records are kept of the drugs that horses have been given to prevent those chemicals from being passed on into the human food chain. As horse passports are designed to protect humans rather than equines, they do not fall under the remit of equine charities. That presents charities such as the Brown Bread sanctuary with serious difficulties. About 80 horses and ponies at Brown Bread will require horse passports and many other similar sanctuaries will face such struggles to fund the cost of the new regulations.

To sanctuaries such as Brown Bread, the cost of up to 80 horse passports will be a huge financial strain. The total cost of completing a passport can easily pass £50 or £60. Although the passport costs a lot less than that, the cost of the various consultations and of implementing the paperwork required makes the total much bigger than the initial cost of the passport suggests.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 459WH

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that setting up passport schemes is immensely complex and difficult? Within the cattle passport scheme, 100,000 cattle were lost at a cost of £15 million a year, according to the National Audit Office. The horse passport scheme will be hugely difficult, but it would be unnecessary if we kept the ban.

Gregory Barker : I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who draws a good example giving a major reason why people in the horse world are so worried by this latest bureaucratic initiative from the Government.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Gregory Barker : Certainly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I call Mr. George Osborne.

Mr. Cameron : David Cameron, actually, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A dangerous mistake is made.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a similarity between the issues of horse passports and of the live export of horses? In each case, we are asking the Minister to take a robust stance on behalf of British horse owners and this country. He must stand up for Britain on horse passports and say that they should not be compulsory because we do not need them. He should also say that we will maintain our current position of a virtual moratorium on live exports.

Gregory Barker : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a keen horseman. He speaks with his usual authority and is absolutely spot on.

The passports will load costs on to the informal market in ponies, to which I alluded earlier, which could serve to drive the animals out of the reach of those young families who want to offer them a temporary home and into the arms of those seeking to buy them to make a quick profit by selling them on to the meat trade. I find it extraordinary that a Government—and, indeed, a Minister—who are prepared to risk a constitutional crisis over foxhunting can be so blind on such a burning and immediate issue of animal welfare.

Only by opposing the export of live horses will we show proper care and respect for horses and properly fulfil the cultural traditions and desires of the British public. We must support the hundreds of thousands of horse and pony lovers in Britain. The Government must persuade the European Parliament and other member states to allow the UK to continue to prohibit the export of all equines for slaughter. They will find that if they do they are pushing at an open door, if they are sufficiently robust and clear about what they are trying to achieve. We need regulations that are right for the 21st century. If that will not work, we must be prepared to take unilateral action to preserve our horses and pets.

Moreover, by aligning our rules with those of the EU, we would do something that runs contrary not only to the interests of horses, but to the sentiments of the British public. In British culture, the horse is regarded as a companion animal, not a meat source. That goes back to the Minister's point about the moral argument that underpins my case.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 460WH

In Britain, the horse is a greatly loved companion, not something that we like to see on the table. We do not eat horsemeat in the UK. We understand, of course, that other cultures have different customs and that some people eat horsemeat. We must respect those customs in so far as they do not cause harm to others, but I strongly believe that the British public would be horrified if we allowed our horses, even by default or with the best of intentions, to join the harrowing horse slaughter trade, in which economics dictates that noble creatures suffer a long, terrifying and degrading final journey.

Andrew George : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the EU regulations must be tightened up with regard to journey times and the welfare of animals, irrespective of the country to which or from which the horse or pony is being transported? The issue affects not just the EU.

2.21 pm

Sitting Suspended for a Division in the House.

2.36 pm

On resuming—

Andrew George : I shall continue my intervention, on which I expect the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) will have sought advice. It is important that there should be controls in EU regulations on absolute journey times and welfare, not only of ponies and horses transported within Europe, but of those brought to Europe for human consumption.

Gregory Barker : I wholeheartedly concur with the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, with enlargement very much upon us, the European Union is that much bigger and the journey time from, for example, the Baltic states or Poland to southern Italy is very long indeed. I am worried not only that the current regulations are not strong enough, but that they are rarely enforced. We must be concerned about proper regulations and proper enforcement.

Mr. Paterson : My hon. Friend should not hang his hat too much on the benefits of a European directive to limit journey times, as the markets for the animals are nearly all well beyond the eight to nine hours travelling time that the European Union is discussing. I believe that the main markets for horses are in southern Italy, for salami. He is absolutely right to mention regulations, but even regulations for a nine-hour journey would not be adequate, as the journey times are much longer than that.

Gregory Barker : That is another very good point.

Mr. Gray : I am deeply sorry to correct my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), but the European Union proposal is not that there should be a time limit for the journey, but that there should be a gap. The animals would remain on the lorry for a short time to rest, then the journey would recommence. It is perfectly possible that the horses could be on the lorry for many days, albeit with rests in the meantime.

Gregory Barker : I am grateful for that clarification. Either way, we would not wish such a trade or fate on

31 Mar 2004 : Column 461WH

British horses and ponies. I hope that we use our influence in Europe to get a derogation to prevent our horses and ponies from being shipped to Europe. Even so, we must be equally robust in Brussels in arguing for strong restrictions on the transport times and in levering up the welfare regulations. I hope that the Minister is taking note of the very strong feelings on the issue.

In short, we must recognise the divergence of cultural habits and traditions between the UK and other European countries, and ensure that the law reflects it, but that cannot be at the expense of horse and pony welfare. It would be a travesty if an attempt to harmonise European legislation meant watering down the regulations on horses.

I have not come here with an inflexible proposition. There are different ways in which the Minister could tackle the problem, but we need far greater clarity and a much more direct approach from the Government. We must continue to prohibit the export of live horses for slaughter, and we must do that by front-door regulation, not by thinking that we can play about and achieve those ends by tinkering with other rules and regulations. I fear that that is what he has in mind.

I want a bold, clear-cut prohibition of the live export of horses and an improvement on the current system. The challenge for the Government is to be clearer, more robust and more straightforward in how they tackle the issue.

Ministers have said that the minimum value legislation that underpins the system will not be repealed until something is in place that is equally robust in law, which will either maintain or improve the protection for our horses. I hope that the Minister takes this opportunity to give the House, and the country at large, a cast-iron guarantee that that is the case and that he takes the clear route that seems to have been offered by Commissioner Byrne and the European Parliament, rather than the more complex route that DEFRA has pursued to date.

In an intervention, the Minister asked what is so different, in welfare terms, about horses and ponies. He shakes his head, but when he addressed the moral question he asked what is different about the moral issue of animal welfare. I promised to come back to him on that before I finished speaking.

Alun Michael : I may have misunderstood what the hon. Gentleman has just said, but I did not ask about the difference between horses and ponies. Is that what he says I said?

Gregory Barker : No, no—not the difference between horses and ponies, but the difference in our culture and the moral difference as between horses and ponies and other types of animal. The Minister shakes his head, but I think that the record will show that that was the gist of his intervention.

Alun Michael : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Gregory Barker : Let me complete my speech, because we are getting into a rather scrappy exchange.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 462WH

Horses and ponies are an integral, almost unique, part of the British way of life and our culture. They appear in our literature, film, folklore and works of art, and they are an incredibly important part of our pastimes, sports and recreation. We are a nation of horse lovers and we need to recognise that the horse occupies a special place in this country—beyond that which it occupies in other European nations. That is why we need a derogation and an extra guarantee, and that is why our ponies and horses must be protected.

Alun Michael : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Gregory Barker : I shall allow the Minister to reply fully in his own time, as I am reaching my peroration.

We must send a clear and unequivocal message from this debate to the meat traders of continental Europe that Britain's horses and ponies must be kept off the menu. We want a clear solution to the problem and we will do whatever is necessary to maintain the current situation.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Whereas we would normally commence the first of the three winding-up speeches at 3 o'clock, we must now do so at 3.15 pm to allow for injury time. I hope that hon. Members bear that time limitation in mind when they make their contributions and accept interventions, of which there have been many, or respond to them, which has taken even longer.

2.44 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing this important debate on a subject that touches the hearts of many people in Britain. I hope that we continue to push this campaign over the coming years.

The British people have a special relationship with horses and, indeed, dogs. As my hon. Friend explained, they are companion animals, not meat animals. We simply do not eat them. In that, as in so many other things, we are quite different from the French, and from other continental countries, to which I say, "vive la différence".

This is a matter of improper and unnecessary interference from the European Union. The EU Commission decision 200/68 is a disgraceful imposition on this country. Yet again we see new Labour eager to pander to the EU and its regulations and centralised control in a way that the people of this country increasingly seek to resist.

The horse passport is a disgraceful regulation. It is simply being pursued to feed the cruel and poorly regulated European slaughterhouses—largely to provide horsemeat for the salami trade, which is something that people in this country find repugnant. We should seek to stop the live export for slaughter of all animals from this country, not seek to extend it to horses. There are two clear reasons for that. The first is moral, but the second is economic and that has not yet been mentioned today.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 463WH

The moral reason circles around animal welfare. My hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the animal welfare issues. I know that our Front-Bench spokesman will be focusing on it, so I will say no more about it so as to be brief, as you requested, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The second issue is that of sound economics. We need to support the added value on the slaughter and provision of animals for food in this country. The export of live animals for slaughter is equivalent to exporting British jobs. I do not want to see this new Labour Government export any more British jobs to continental Europe, even though they consistently seek to do so.

Public opinion is clear on the issue. They want the export of live horses for slaughter to be prohibited. Anything less will be yet another reason for my constituents, like those of many other hon. Members, to seek to vote the new Labour Government out at the next general election.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. It is time for a small explanation and a large apology. Due to a foul up by our intelligence services, I am afraid that I must apologise to the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) for getting his name wrong. On this occasion, I call Mr. David Cameron.

2.47 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I quite understand. The mistake has also been made by Mr. Speaker. If he can make it, it is quite acceptable for his deputies to do so as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on raising an important issue. He has done so with a great combination of reasonableness and passion. I know that, as a keen horseman, he will be riding in his first point to point over the Easter break. Conservative Members do not want a by-election, so we all wish him the best of luck with that.

I start with two clear propositions. First, horses are companion animals and I do not want to encourage the eating of them. Secondly, the transport of horses for human consumption often results in great cruelty and suffering. As I understand it, virtually no horses are exported from the UK to European countries where horsemeat is eaten. I believe that continuing that should be the aim of all those who care about this branch of animal welfare. Those are simple propositions that we would all sign up to.

As I understand it, the Government are proposing two things. The first is to introduce the compulsory passport legislation that I, along with my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), did as much as we could to oppose. I thought it profoundly misguided to have compulsory passports containing a record of every drug taken by the horse just to facilitate the eating of horses. The second thing that the Government are doing is proposing to end the effective moratorium on the export of live horses from the UK. They say that they hope to get such tough welfare standards approved across Europe and that that moratorium will effectively remain in place. I will come on to whether that is true in a minute.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 464WH

I want to raise another point, however. The Minister wrote a letter to The Daily Telegraph on 8 February, in which he said:


I am not at all sure that that is true. If every horse in Britain has a passport and that passport shows what drugs have been administered, it surely makes it more likely that those horses can end up in the food chain. If, at the same time, the Government say that the current status of the law about live exports has to change—everyone agrees that the current status of the law means that horses exported from the UK are always on the hook rather than on the hoof— changing the law could change the situation. Our fear is that for some horses it will mean, "Have passport, will travel." That is what we are trying to avoid.

What does the Minister propose to do? It seems to me that the European Commission is in the process of introducing new regulations for the live transport of horses and other animals. They will be by no means ideal but they will probably be an improvement. I accept that. They will make a bad situation in the EU rather better. However, the question for us in this Chamber is what the effect will be on the UK. That is the key question for the Minister when he winds up the debate.

Why will the Government not go down the route suggested by the International League for the Protection of Horses, which is to ask for an opt-out for the UK from the EU rules so as to prevent effectively the live export of horses from the UK? I cannot do better than to quote from the very good briefing that ILPH has given to Ministers:


That is the nub of it.

I want to make one last point. There is another relationship in the Government's proposals relating to horse passports and the live export of horses. It is quite clear from the Adjournment debate that I held, from the statutory instrument on which my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire and I served and from all the questions that we asked that it was unnecessary to bring in compulsory passports for the UK. The Minister could have fought for a different situation for the UK, where only horses going into the food chain would need a passport, yet the Government gave in. They initially said that we could do that and then they said that it was not possible; they then gave in.

The situation with live exports is similar. We do not want to export live horses for meat. We do not think that it should happen. We think that it is an evil trade—I expect that the Minister would agree. I challenge him, or anyone else, to go out on to the street and find five people who want to see the export of live horses from this country to the continent. They will not find them.

The Minister can go to the Council of Ministers, he can do what is easy and convenient and he can negotiate something that will make life a little better in Europe and a lot worse in Britain or he can stand up and defend his country and negotiate something that allows us to maintain our moratorium on the live export of horses.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 465WH

The Minister heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire that the relevant commissioner in the European Parliament has now said that an opt-out for Britain is acceptable, and the Minister has no excuse not to make sure that we can get that opt-out. He likes to style himself as the Minister for the horse. If he is, he will fight for that opt-out and will deliver something that is as good as the status quo for this country. Otherwise, he will not be the Minister for the horse, but the Minister for something else—I fear that he will be the Minister for eating horses.

The Minister failed the test on hunting. He promised things to the countryside that he simply did not deliver, such as listening. He then suddenly said that an all-out ban was a jolly good thing, even though that was not what he initially proposed. He failed the test on passports and he let the country down over that. He now faces a third test, on keeping the situation so that horses cannot be exported live from this country for the meat trade. He has got to pass that test, so I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

2.54 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on bringing a topic of enormous interest to the House's attention. I should declare an interest: my family has always owned horses, and I have several now. It might interest my hon. Friend to know that I have an ancient, retired Shetland pony who is vicious at both ends and tends to come into the house for cake, but I think that we should discuss that later.

I would like to help the Minister. The Government are engaged in a big conversation, talking to the country and to interested groups, and we all know that an election is not terribly far away. I introduced an Adjournment debate on ragwort about three years ago in which I established that an enormous number of people are involved in the horse world: three million people ride, and 500,000 households own more than 1 million horses between them. I calculated that the horse industry is probably the second-largest industry in the countryside.

I totally endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). I have not met a single person who would support the proposal to end the moratorium. There are a lot of horses in my constituency, and when I go home at weekends I go racing, but I have met no one who supports the proposal. It is extraordinary how obtuse and pig-headed the Government have been.

I shall not go through the reasons for keeping the moratorium, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle went through them in depth. I entirely endorse his comments, and I am sure that that will be reflected in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who has fought an absolutely splendid campaign. There are good reasons not to remove the moratorium or, indeed, to relax it in any way. Only 7,000 horses are eaten in this country, and we have a totally satisfactory mechanism, involving knacker's yards and hunt kennels, for disposing of redundant and dead horses.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 466WH

One huge advantage of the Minister taking the opportunity offered by the European Union to take up the derogation would be that we would not have to burden the countryside with the ghastly nightmare—the bureaucratic cost and nonsense—of horse passports. Incredibly, the cattle passports scheme has lost 100,000 cattle. As I said, the National Audit Office reckons that that costs us—the taxpayers—£15 million a year. We have not even started the scheme for horses, which are owned by a far more heterogeneous group of people—and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), who has left the Chamber, said, some horses, including some on Bodmin and other moors, are not owned by a particular person.

If the moratorium were maintained, introducing horse passports would be total nonsense. As the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website says, the only real reason to have passports is that they


If we are not going to export horses for food, the only horses that will require passports will be racehorses, which already have them, and the 7,000 horses that go into the food chain in this country.

Getting rid of the passport scheme would save an absolute nightmare of costs to the countryside. We are talking about a passport possibly costing up to £50, fines of £5,000 for not having one, and the possibility of a month's imprisonment for a second offence. A lot of riding schools are right on the edge of viability, and the passport scheme will push them over the edge, which would be tragic because horses provide splendid recreation; they are a marvellous way for young people to learn about animals and to get into the horse industry, which is, as I said, enormous.

If the Minister screws his courage to the sticking-place and uses the opportunity that the European Union gave him yesterday to maintain the moratorium, he will agree that there is absolutely no necessity to persist with the bureaucratic nonsense of horse passports.

2.59 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) not only on securing the debate and making a strong case but on timing the debate so fortuitously. A Committee of the European Parliament recently considered an amendment to the regulation that we are debating, and the Council of Ministers is due to debate the issue only two weeks after we return from the Easter recess. In view of the large number of questions that we have for the Minister—to be fair, he has engaged in debate—I shall do my best to keep my comments brief and give him the maximum available time between now and 3.45, when the debate will, sadly, have to end.

I, too, come to the debate happy to declare that in my youth I was the proud owner of a pony. I fully understand the strong passions that the issue arouses. I congratulate the Western Morning News, a newspaper in my region, on mounting a first-class campaign to draw its readership's attention to the potential plight of ponies and horses from the UK. The paper raised a

31 Mar 2004 : Column 467WH

66,000-signature petition, which made the Government well aware of the issue and which formed part of an 85,000-signature petition that was presented to the European Parliament only yesterday.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): In endorsing the hon. Gentleman's views about the role of the press, I praise The Southern Daily Echo on its efforts. I draw his attention to a headline in today's edition, which states categorically "Ponies off the menu", which suggests that the whole episode as over and done with as a result of the European decision. A Liberal Democrat MEP is even quoted as saying that there is now no question of new forest ponies being exported for slaughter. Given the hon. Gentleman's more cautious remarks, am I right in thinking that that is not quite yet the position?

Andrew George : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It would be quite inappropriate of me to admonish a fellow member of my party for perhaps being a little hasty in his conclusions. However, it is obviously encouraging that a Committee of the European Parliament has accepted the amendment in its present form. No doubt my Liberal Democrat colleague hoped that the robustness and strength of the case made in that Committee would make the Minister highly likely to take on board the logic of our argument. Perhaps my colleague assumed, on the basis of such robustness and logic, that the two things followed as night follows day. We shall see if that happens.

I congratulate the International League for the Protection of Horses, which has been steadfast in the campaign. The league has provided an excellent briefing for today's debate and has always been forthcoming with information and advice in response to my questions. The league was responsible for part of the 85,000-signature petition delivered to the European Parliament yesterday.

I asked in an intervention whether the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle had made an assessment of the likely impact of the proposed amendment compared with the Government's alternative. That alternative focuses on the trained to halter condition, which would constrain the export to other European countries of live horses for human consumption. That is the nub of the argument, and I hope that the Minister will give a clear indication about the assessments and reassure us that his assessment is that the proposed trained to halter constraint on the export of live horses would provide at least the same level of constraint as the current derogation allows. Has the Minister had the opportunity to review the situation since yesterday's debate in a Committee of the European Parliament? Has he come to a conclusion about the position that the Government will take on 30 April, when I understand the Council of Ministers is due to meet to consider this crucial issue? I hope that the Council will come to a conclusion with which the general public in this country, especially horse and pony owners, will be content.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle to raise the question of journey limits. Irrespective of the question of the fate of ponies and horses from the UK, journey limits affect ponies and horses from other European nations, including eastern European nations, some of which are accession

31 Mar 2004 : Column 468WH

countries. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) rightly pointed out in an intervention that the present draft indicates that the current constraint on journey times is likely to be lifted. As for welfare, under the proposed new regulation the only rest, feeding and watering of animals is likely to happen only after 24 hours, or even some time after that—and it will take place on the vehicle. Those who love ponies and horses and have regard for them, whether they are from the UK or Europe, or have been brought into Europe from outside, believe that horses should be treated with consideration. I hope that when the Minister debates the issue in the Council of Ministers on 30 April he will consider it carefully. It is important that the UK stands up in Europe and makes a strong case for robust constraints on journey limits. The majority of people in this country who care about horses and ponies will also be extremely worried and concerned about their treatment in other European nations such as Romania, which import horses and ponies into the EU—particularly Italy.

I hope that the Minister will have the time to answer questions on whether he will take up the proposed derogation and the amendment proposed to the regulation yesterday in Committee. I wonder what assessment he has made of that, and what efforts he will make to ensure that much more rigorous and robust controls are introduced to constrain journey limits.

Gregory Barker : I concur with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. Will he be sure to reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and thus not encourage his colleagues to think that the war is won? There is much more to do. It would be wrong to send a message out now that we can relax and everything will be all right. We must keep up the pressure.

Andrew George : The hon. Gentleman is right. We could have adjourned this debate had the war been won. The fact that we are here and feel passionate about the issue helps to make the point. It is important that we do not give a false impression that the battle is won—of course it has not. We have achieved something important, which members of all parties should celebrate, but the battle is certainly not won and that is why constructive engagement with the Minister and the Department is important. I hope that, rather than bludgeon the Minister into submission, we shall persuade him to accept a logical, robust and sensible measure.

3.8 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). It is nice to know that the Liberal Democrats are with us on this. I join him in congratulating the Western Morning News in particular, and my local paper, the Western Daily Press, both of which have campaigned long and hard on the issue. There is strong feeling about it throughout the west country. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has taken part in the debate, and I was glad to hear his words of support.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends who have made useful contributions to the debate; in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory

31 Mar 2004 : Column 469WH

Barker), whose timing was, as always, immaculate, and who introduced the debate eloquently and elegantly. It is also nice to have the expertise of my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and for Witney (Mr. Cameron), each of whom contributed to developing today's arguments.

I was pleased to exercise the age-old right of a Member of Parliament and come to Parliament today on a horse. I believe that that has not happened since 1920 and the last person to do it was a Conservative MP called Sir Arthur Samuel. I was delighted to be escorted by two outriders from the International League for the Protection of Horses, and I join the hon. Member for St. Ives in paying tribute to that organisation, which has done a fantastic job on campaigning on the issue and changing minds in all parts of the House, in the European Parliament, the Commission and elsewhere. This debate is a tribute to its determination to ensure that the issue is properly aired.

It was a great treat to ride a 23-year-old ex-police horse called ILPH Pascal—three times a winner of the police horse of the year award in the early 1990s. That is exactly the kind of animal that, if we cannot change the Government's mind, will be piled on to lorries, carted off to the continent and turned into sausages. It was an important piece of symbolism that we arrived on horses to show what animals we are seeking to protect.

As several hon. Members have commented, the debate is timely because the European Parliament yesterday agreed to two amendments to which I shall refer shortly. The purpose of the debate is to persuade the Government that their proposals are insufficient and that the vast bulk of the British population are opposed to the proposals, and, in a positive way, to suggest a solution to the difficult problem—a way out of this nasty hole. I hope that, contrary to what the Minister said on the farming programme on which he appeared this morning, he is ready to listen constructively and act on some of our suggestions.

As we have heard, here in Great Britain, we do not eat horses; we never have. Their export to abattoirs on the continent has been banned for some 70 years thanks to the so-called minimum value regulations introduced in 1937 by a Conservative MP, Sir George Cockerill. Those regulations have been extremely effective; they were introduced to prevent the export of live horses, and no horses have been exported from the UK to be eaten. Whatever one might say about the regulations, they work. At this moment, no horses are being exported to the European Union or elsewhere to be eaten.

I accept the Minister's point that it may be time to reconsider those regulations, and that the introduction of the EU transport regulations may make that need more urgent. The purpose of the debate is to try to find an alternative solution to the proposed export of live horses and to replace and replicate the protection of horses afforded by the minimum value regulations.

It is worrying that the Minister seemed to suggest that he could see no moral justification for a ban. He seemed to be saying that, as far as he was concerned, it would be morally legitimate for us to export horses to the continent. No doubt he will say that that will not happen

31 Mar 2004 : Column 470WH

and that he will put in place measures to ensure that it does not. However, his comments suggested to me that he sees no moral justification for banning the export of live horses to be turned into sausages. When he said that, he was alone among the 55 million people in Britain. I suspect that the people of Britain, to a man, woman and child, believe that there is an overwhelmingly strong moral objection to the export of live horses to be turned into sausages—the people of Britain do not want it. If the Minister believes that it is morally acceptable for horses to be exported to Italy to be made into salami, he is on his own.

The Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle a moment to intervene. If he now wants to tell us that we, on this side of the House, have the moral case and that he disagrees with us, he should do so.

Alun Michael : I have a question for the hon. Gentleman that neither he nor his hon. Friend have answered. Will he set aside his misinterpretation of what I might say and I have not said, and explain on what moral argument he would base a simple ban?

Mr. Gray : That is precisely the point, and I notice that the Minister did not correct us or say that he believes the export of live horses to be immoral. I believe it to be immoral, wicked and scandalous, and something that we must ban. The Minister has not said that he considers it to be wicked, so I shall tell him why I believe that this is a moral issue. There is a simple moral difference that is reflected in European laws: on the continent of Europe, the horse is an agricultural, food-producing animal. All the regulations on horses on the continent of Europe consider it to be a food-producing animal. In this country, we have never done that: the horse is specifically not an agricultural animal, although some would like it to be. If it were an agricultural animal, there would be no business rates. It is often said that there would be all kinds of advantages in it being considered an agricultural animal, but we have always resisted that.

Here, as my hon. Friends eloquently said, the horse is considered to be a companion animal—a sporting animal—not a food-producing animal, and with the exception of 6,000 or 7,000 broken-down racehorses among the 1 million to 1.5 million horses in Britain, we do not kill them to be eaten. That is the moral difference. We in Britain love our horses: we do not see them as food-producing animals, and we do not want them to be slaughtered and made into sausages. That is an overwhelmingly powerful moral argument that the people in Britain will almost unanimously accept, and we shall see that in the papers tomorrow.

Gregory Barker : My hon. Friend has put it brilliantly, but would not he agree that the fact that the so–called Minister for the horse has to ask the question in the first place, because he is not clear what the moral argument is, is really quite scandalous? It is a matter of huge concern to anybody who loves horses that he throws the question open for debate.

Mr. Gray : I would not be so harsh on the unfortunate person who finds himself being the Minister for the horse, because he is in an awkward position. He has

31 Mar 2004 : Column 471WH

been advised up to now that he must do this because of European law, so he regrettably seeks to make out that that there is no moral objection to what he has been forced to do. We should be gentle with the Minister, not force him into a corner or call him immoral. However, we intend in this debate to offer him an alternative—an escape from his awkward position.

Let me give one analogy. Let us suppose that some madman concluded that we should herd together the many millions of stray dogs and cats on Britain's streets, put them on a ship and take them to Korea. I believe that dogs and cats are eaten in Korea, although I find that nauseating. If that were to happen, would not the Minister consider the herding together and shipment of dogs and cats—live and in horrific conditions—to Korea to be eaten, to be immoral? I most certainly would, just as I consider the export of live horses to be entirely abhorrent and obnoxious.

The Minister will tell us that the minimum value regulations will not stand up in court, and he may be right. It is reasonable that we should seek to assist him in trying to find an alternative to them. He is probably right, too, to say that the live transportation regulations, which are currently under consideration on the continent, may make that even more difficult. Incidentally, the Conservatives welcome much of what is proposed in the new EU transportation regulations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney said, we hope that they will make a bad situation slightly better, although we have real reservations about the end product of the regulations, because they will still mean that horses and other animals could be on lorries for many days, albeit with rest periods for food, water and veterinary care. However, we see no reason at all why those slightly better transportation regulations on the continent of Europe should necessarily interfere with the ban on the export of live horses from this country.

Having listened to the Minister on various recent occasions, it would appear to me that his intended solution to the problem is to ensure that the export of live horses is not restarted, and I accept that he has said several times that he does not want it to start again. He seems to be indicating that he intends to prevent that by gold plating the welfare regulations, making them so stringent that the trade will become uneconomic. To be fair to him, he has achieved that in one category of horse: unbroken ponies. The regulations on unbroken ponies will almost certainly make that trade nearly impossible.

What about the other types of horse which are not covered, however? If the Minister has in mind extremely high standards that would, in effect, ban any resumption of the live export of all categories of horse and pony, he must at the very least spell out today precisely what those high standards are. It is no good saying, "I'm going to put in place high standards, which I hope is gold plating. I therefore hope that there will not be a market, because it will be too expensive for live export to start." We want to know precisely and in minute detail what those standards are and why they will be achieved. The horse that I rode to Westminster today is probably worth £500 or £600 in the dead meat market. What standards will the Minister put in place to ensure that traders do not want to sell their horse overseas for that amount?

31 Mar 2004 : Column 472WH

The Minister may also argue that he does not believe that there is a market for live export, or that he hopes that there is not, and that in any case there will not be one under these new, stringent conditions. I am not convinced, particularly in the aftermath of the absurd EU regulations that prevent the burial of carcasses on farms. Unscrupulous owners and traders are likely to find an alternative market for end-of-life horses on the continent. As my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle and for Witney have said, the Minister's absurd, bureaucratic and unenforceable horse passport regulations will make that export much easier. Live export overseas would not be possible were it not for passports. I call on him to abolish the horse passport scheme, which would solve his problem at a stroke.

The Opposition are by no means convinced that the Minister's promised gold plating will replicate the effective ban that the minimum value regulations provided, and we demand an effective total ban. As one or two of my hon. Friends have commented this afternoon, we now have something that gives the Minister exactly the solution that he seeks. As we have heard, yesterday two of my Conservative colleagues in the European Parliament, Roger Helmer and Neil Parish, to whom I pay tribute, secured broad acceptance of two amendments to the draft regulations. New article 1.2(a), inter alia, reads:


New annexe 1, chapter V, paragraph 1.1 reads:


shall


Incidentally, it was the European Parliament, not the Committee, that passed those amendments in plenary session yesterday. They will go to the Council of Ministers and then to the Commission, which may or may not ratify them. The difficulty is—and here we come to what the Minister must do—that we do not know whether the British Government are asking for those amendments to be passed. We heard that Commissioner Byrne, who has responsibility for these matters, believes them to be perfectly sensible. Last night, he said:


The European Parliament has unanimously agreed to the amendments, as have the various Committees. The commissioner says that he understands them, that he is ready to go along with them, and that he believes that the Commission will go along with them. The whole European structure says that we can ban the export of live horses. Only one person says that he hopes that more stringent regulations will somehow ban the trade that all of us, except him, believe to be obnoxious and immoral.

Mr. Cameron : The Minister for the horse.

Mr. Gray : As my hon. Friend says, that comes from the Minister.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 473WH

The regulations have been amended to allow the ban to continue. The European Parliament wants that, and the commissioner is perfectly happy about it. We need to persuade the Government of the political urgency of continuing the ban. The Minister cannot shelter behind what he calls the unsustainability of the minimum value regulations. He cannot merely blame the EU, because we now know that it agrees with us; nor can he rely on what he claims are much improved standards of welfare in transit.

The Opposition say that no standards of welfare in transit, no matter how gold plated they may be, are sufficiently humane. We believe that we speak for 99 per cent. of the people of Britain. We demand an absolute ban on the export of live horses for slaughter for human consumption. The Minister should deserve his name as Minister for the horse; he must not become the Minister for the slaughtering of horses.

3.25 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael) : I shall seek to cover the wide range of issues raised this afternoon. First, however, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing the debate. He has highlighted an important issue, but he and others are wrong to worry people without justification. Serious issues are involved, but to worry people by suggesting that the Government are going to relax, or somehow allow a diminution in, the protection of horses or their welfare is wrong.

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that we need to improve the regulations and that they need to be based on horse welfare. That is precisely what we have done, but that was not the drift of all the hon. Gentleman's speech although it is an important point.

The hon. Gentleman and one or two others strayed on to the question of horse passports. The Government have not introduced a top-down bureaucratic system; we have worked with the horse industry to strengthen the role of our country's horse organisations and to produce a sensible system. He and others should talk more to the horse organisations with which we worked. They would then realise that they have missed a great deal of the point.

Mr. Gray : The Minister may have consulted the horse industry, but has he consulted the Pony Club, the breed organisations or the Association of British Riding Schools, of which, I should warn him, I am president?

Alun Michael : I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's affection for one or two horse organisations, but we consulted with a wide range of organisations, including the breed societies, the International League for the Protection of Horses and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is right to highlight that issue, which is one that people feel strongly about. We have received several thousand letters, postcards and petitions from hon. Members, campaign groups and the

31 Mar 2004 : Column 474WH

public on the subject, which demonstrates the strength of feeling, but some of those communications were not about anything that we have ever contemplated doing.

Gregory Barker : Does the Minister not agree that, contrary to his opening remark that we have raised the subject to worry people, we are articulating the genuine concerns of thousands of people? This is not an issue that has been whipped up in Parliament; the Opposition are articulating a real concern.

Alun Michael : I have to say that some Conservative Members sought to exploit the strong feeling held by many. Indeed, I welcome the idea of positive engagement, which was put forward by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). He, at least, wants proper protection for horses to result from today's debate and from how those issues are addressed in the long term. I invite Conservative Members to engage in such a constructive debate, even though doing so may seem strange to them.

Mr. Cameron : Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael : In a moment.

Most of those who have written to us expressing such strong views support, without seeming to know it, what the Government are trying to achieve—namely, the prevention of the live export of horses for slaughter. I welcome their support. The Government are working to protect and improve the welfare of horses.

Let us look at the facts. There is no ban on the export of horses for slaughter, and there never has been. The national rules on horse and pony exports, which are sometimes referred to as the minimum values rules, merely place restrictions on the export of certain working horses—that is, horses intended for work abroad, not those sent for slaughter—and some ponies. Those long-standing provisions prevented the export of unfit or worthless older working horses and ponies—that is why they were introduced—but so-called working horses such as shire horses are now more likely to be exported for showing or competition. In other words, the minimum values do not apply. That is why I asked Conservative Members several times whether they had read the rules or understood them.

Some people believe that those restrictions have served to limit horse and pony exports. The fact is that there is hardly any such trade, and because we do not want to see it grow or to send the wrong signal, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I do not intend to relax or remove the minimum values until and unless we have new arrangements that protect horses and their welfare. I have made that absolutely clear in a letter, which I have sent to hon. Members, including Opposition Members here today. I am surprised that they sought to cast doubt on that during the debate.

The minimum values are relatively small. They have not been updated for 25 years, so it is a pretty poor nag that would be protected by the law as it stands, even if it happened to be a working horse that came within the very limited categories to which the rules apply. The current arrangements also provide a bureaucratic obstacle to the legitimate and worthwhile movement of

31 Mar 2004 : Column 475WH

horses and ponies for sport and recreation. Increasingly, people go abroad and have to follow the regulations, which is an obstacle for those who have nothing to do with the export of horses for slaughter.

The problem is that the alternatives that Opposition Members are providing do not necessarily do what they think they will do. I have said on several occasions that laws do not always prevent what they forbid. We want legislation that works. We want regulations that prevent the trade and address the issues of horse welfare and animal welfare.

Several hon. Members rose—

Alun Michael : I give way to the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), as promised.

Mr. Cameron : When raising this concern with every Member of Parliament, the ILPH said that it is extremely concerned that there is a real risk that this vital legislation will be repealed. Does the Minister think that the ILPH is whipping up trouble?

Alun Michael : I would put it this way: it is interesting that in private the ILPH has congratulated me on what I am doing to protect the welfare of horses. It did that at a large meeting last week. It is interesting that the ILPH and the RSPCA came to talk to me about the need to keep up the slaughter of horses in this country so that meat can be exported to avoid the animal welfare problems that arise from horses travelling abroad for slaughter. I can see their point entirely. It is a good, straight point and hon. Members need to understand it.

It is important to separate the issue of the slaughter of horses—where they go, how we get the value that pays for that slaughter, the horse slaughterhouses and how humane slaughter is dealt with in this country at the end of an animal's life—from the issue of export and the welfare of horses in transit. Those issues are both important, but they need to be understood if Members and the general public—a well-informed general public, I would like to think—are to understand what is necessary to protect horses from the trade that several Members have rightly said that they want to prevent and which we are working hard to prevent.

Several hon. Members rose—

Alun Michael : I give way to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray).

Mr. Gray : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, although I shall draw a blind over the fact that he seemed to be praying in aid the RSPCA and the ILPH, which is quite incorrect. They are both entirely opposed to what he proposes.

The Minister says that the minimum value legislation is ineffectual but, none the less, he is certain to keep it in place until we have something better. Will he answer two questions? If the legislation is so ineffectual, why does it work? Not one horse is being exported at the moment, so it seems to me that it is working pretty well. Secondly, if he is to put something better in its place that has

31 Mar 2004 : Column 476WH

exactly the same effect—I welcome the fact that he says that he does not like live export—will he explain in detail what it will be?

Alun Michael : First, the legislation is ineffectual: if the hon. Gentleman simply reads the law he will see that it does not ban what he and his colleagues suggest it bans.

Mr. Gray : It works.

Alun Michael : It does not. Look at the law and what it does. It does not ban what Opposition Members say it does. There has been a general understanding that the minimum values protect a limited range of animals, and to get rid of those regulations would send the wrong signal. That is all I am saying. The idea of a trade in horses for slaughter from this country is abhorrent to people in this country. The organisations that I said have agreed with me have said that controlling the export of horses for slaughter is the issue.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire cited the RSPCA. That organisation has just written to hon. Members to express its worry about elements of the presidency's proposals for dealing with the issue of animals in transit. I spoke to the RSPCA yesterday to clarify whether the point involves general animal welfare issues and whether it is happy with the situation that we have achieved for horses. It confirmed that it supports the situation that we have achieved for horses. Its concerns relate to the wider issue of the welfare of animals in transit, and it is worried that the presidency's proposals are not strong enough.

Andrew George : The Minister says that he wants regulations that work, but I do not think that we in this Chamber are better than anyone else at second-guessing the likely outcome of the various proposals. He says that his proposals would be as good, if not better, than the current arrangements. Is he prepared to stake his career and reputation on that, is he confident of the outcome and will he support the amendments proposed by the European Parliament? Surely that would directly achieve the outcome that all of us, including him, want.

Alun Michael : There is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman says. First, our categoric intention—I have written to all Members of the House about this—is not to relax the minimum value regulations unless and until something a great deal better is available. We want to achieve what people believe the regulations achieve. One reason for wanting to be sure that that is practical is that instead of just discussing it with DEFRA officials, my officials and I have been discussing it with the horse welfare organisations and organisations such as the RSPCA, and looking at what would work in practice.

A lot of hard work has been done and I commend the willingness of horse welfare organisations to engage with us to try to achieve something that works. A great deal of serious work is going on and the way in which some Opposition Members talk that down shows outrageous opportunism. The emotive language of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire on turning our horses into sausages is the opposite of engagement.

What the European Parliament decided yesterday is interesting and may be helpful. We shall examine that in detail. As I understand the amendment, it would allow

31 Mar 2004 : Column 477WH

a provisional ban on horses for slaughter, but subject to an assessment of the legal issues concerning the treaty. We need to know how it would work in practice and what is the relationship between the resolution, to which the Commissioner gave a general tick, and other parts of European legislation.

I certainly give a commitment to examine that carefully to see whether it provides something that we can use, and I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will consider the matter equally seriously. We are not sure that it will do so and I do not want to build up hopes, because it is not the easy stroke that a resolution sometimes seems to be, but we will consider it and what the Commission has to say about it to see where we can get to.

Clearly there are concerns among animal welfare organisations generally about the presidency proposals. We are taking a lead in Europe by working for effective regulation to protect the welfare of horses, not just in the United Kingdom, but throughout Europe, including the accession states.

I shall explain the current EU legislation. A lot has been made of the opt-out clause in the 1991 directive on welfare during transport. That clause was an attempt to acknowledge that the directive did not set welfare rules for horse journeys, so member states were able to make up their own rules. From that clause stemmed our legal basis for retaining the minimum value rules, although they do not do what many people think they do. In 1995, rules for horse and pony journeys were agreed at EU level and implemented in the UK in 1997—not immediately after they were agreed and not by the party of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, but by the incoming Administration. There was a dragging of feet over the implementation of those rules and some hon. Members will remember the controversy over that.

In contrast, this Government are committed to and put high priority on high standards of animal welfare, but improvement in welfare rules, including enforcement, will really count if they are made at European level so that horses and ponies receive better protection during transport on the continent and not just in the UK. Last year, the European Commission brought forward its long-awaited proposals to amend the transport rules. This is where the issue of the impact of its proposals comes in. We are pleased that both the Italian and Irish presidencies have taken things forward.

During the negotiations, Britain has been seeking high standards for horses, along with better enforcement. Campaigning organisations say that long journeys for horses and ponies take place on the continent. I agree. That is something that we want to prevent. It is the prospect of British horses and ponies being subjected to such journeys that leads campaigners to press for a ban on live exports, and I entirely sympathise with those concerns, but let us be honest: the minimum value rules are out of date and, even more importantly, do not achieve the improved welfare standards for horses. It is not an option to continue to operate those rules unchanged. We want similar or better controls.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 478WH

We considered an outright ban, but the problem is enforcement. That is why we have to look carefully at the suggestions made yesterday to see whether they would achieve what we want. There is no prohibition on horses being exported for other reasons—breeding, riding or exhibition. Once exported, we have no control over what happens to those animals. If we were simply to ban exporting horses for slaughter, the regulation would be enforceable only in the case of horses presented as destined directly for slaughter.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is right to say that the issue is what is good for business—that is, the slaughter taking place in this country—and good for horse welfare as well.

Bob Spink rose—

Gregory Barker rose—

Alun Michael : I must give way to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle.

Gregory Barker : The Minister is intent on seeing everything to do with horse welfare through the prism of the transport regulations. Would he be happy if, with the introduction of horse passports, there was a large increase in the number of British horses slaughtered to feed the Italian market for horsemeat, but the slaughtering took place in the UK and the horses were simply shipped as carcasses? Is he prepared to preside over a regime that produces a major increase in slaughtering horses to feed the salami market?

Alun Michael : Does the hon. Gentleman want to stop the slaughter of horses in this country for export as meat? In that case he would be contradicting the ILPH and the RSPCA. They came to me recently to ask for a variation in relation to horse passports simply because they want the number of horses that are slaughtered in this country and which enter the food chain abroad to be maintained—they believe that that is in the interests of horse welfare. He must come clean about where he stands.

Bob Spink : My point is not that we should slaughter animals in this country to export them for food, but that we should seek to stop the live export of all animals from this country.

Alun Michael : The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point; if animals are slaughtered for export the meat goes abroad. He is right about the animal welfare imperative of approaching the matter in that way. I agree with him—I am delighted to say that I am prepared to make an exception on occasion.

Horses hold a special place in the heart of the British public, but we need to understand the relationship between the different elements. Those who are involved in the welfare of horses understand the issues and understand that the welfare of animals in this country—I am talking about humane slaughter at the end of a productive life—depends on the value of horsemeat after slaughter. That is an animal welfare consideration. It is also a consideration in relation to other animals.

31 Mar 2004 : Column 479WH

In this country, we view horses and ponies as sporting animals, pets and companions rather than as food, but we need to be honest about the position of horses and ponies that are unwanted or have completed their useful life. Horses are slaughtered in this country for meat for human consumption abroad. Horse welfare organisations tell me that they want that to continue because it is good for the welfare of horses and it means that there is humane slaughter. Last year, more than 6,700 horses were slaughtered for meat for human consumption. They were slaughtered in this country for their meat to be exported—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order.