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NOW IT'S UP TO YOU DEFRA

09:20 - 31 March 2004

Meps yesterday paved the way for the UK to ban live animal exports. WMN reporter Sarah Pitt joined animal welfare campaigners in Strasbourg

The Western Morning News' campaign to prevent a cruel trade in live horses, ponies and donkeys for slaughter on the Continent was backed by the European Parliament yesterday.

As a deputation from UK equine welfare charity the International League for the Protection of Horses and the Western Morning News presented petitions from thousands of horse lovers to President of the Parliament Pat Cox, MEPs voted to back an amendment which would allow Britain to have a ban.

Westcountry horse lovers have forced the issue onto the European agenda - despite claims from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it could not take action.

Last year a WMN campaign received 65,982 signatures on a petition calling for a ban on the live exports of equines. Now campaigners are calling on Defra to act to protect horses, ponies and donkeys in this country.

Yesterday MEPs voted by a clear majority to back two amendments in the draft EU Regulation, both worded to allow member states to make "additional national rules" including restrictions on export, where they are aimed at improving animal welfare.

Neil Parish, the South West Tory MP who drafted the amendments, said the vote would put pressure on the UK Government to demand an opt-out from fellow EU ministers at a crunch meeting on the issue in Brussels next month.

Mr Parish said: "We have put in place all the necessary requirements we can for the Government to ask for the opt-out. Now the ball is firmly in the Government's court and they must get that opt-out. It is there for the taking."

Maureen Rolls, a spokeswoman the South West Equine Protection Society, echoed his call for action by the Government. She said: "This is ostensibly good news but we have to keep the pressure up. The Government has known about the unrest from horse lovers for a long time but did its best to ignore them.

"We will not just sit back and assume it will do the right thing now."

While ministers do not have to accept the amendments in Parliament's report, campaigners hope it will put pressure on Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett to back it.

And campaigners also welcomed an announcement by European Commissioner for animal health David Byrne that the Commission would back an opt-out if it was "legally sustainable".

Mr Byrne said: "The Commission supports the proposal to open the possibility for the member states to adopt stricter national rules if they are compatible with the general rules of the Treaty.

"I am pleased that this would effectively maintain the UK's restriction on the export of horses destined for human consumption. I have consistently said I would look at this matter with a view to supporting a legally sustainable text."

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "Until we have actually had the opportunity to examine the proposal and take legal advice we can't have a view on it."

John Smales, chief executive of the ILPH, said: "This will demonstrate to the Government that this is not going to go away. It is something that they are not going to be allowed to sweep under the carpet. There is great strength of public feeling against this."

Paul Svendsen, deputy chief executive of The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, East Devon, said: "Not only do we need to ensure the Government takes advantage of this opt-out clause but we have to be vigilant, and ensure dealers don't expose any further loopholes in the law.

"We need to keep one step ahead of them, and those investigations need to come from the very highest level."

The ILPH takes issue with Defra officials who say that there need not be special regulations to ban live horse exports from Britain, because such exports do not exist at the moment. The charity believes an export trade could start up again, particularly with the banning of the burial of livestock on farms, which could lead to owners having to pay hundreds of pounds to have old or sick horses destroyed.

Yesterday, President of the Parliament, Pat Cox, accepted a petition of more than 83,000 signatures from the ILPH calling for the UK Government and the European Commission to back a ban. He also accepted a commemorative front page from the Western Morning News emblazoned with the number of signatures collected by the paper in support of a ban. He praised the campaign run by the paper as an example of successful grassroots action


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BECKETT MUST NOW WIN BACKING FOR UK OPT-OUT

09:20 - 31 March 2004 An amendment to the EU Regulation on animal transportation, which would allow the UK to keep its ban on the export of live horses, ponies and donkeys has been passed. Now the pressure is on the UK Government to press its fellow agriculture ministers to ensure that amendment becomes law.

Parliament's report on the legislation is not binding on ministers and when they meet in Brussels next month to debate the Regulation for the final time before it becomes law they could reject all the European Parliament's proposals.

But because the Commissioner for Animal Welfare David Byrne has now supported the principle of an opt-out to allow Britain to ban the export of equines, it becomes harder for the UK Government to justify not asking their fellow EU agriculture ministers to back such a clause.

In the four weeks before the Council of Ministers meet to discuss the Regulation, Parliament's report clause will be scrutinised by officials from member states and the Commission to assess whether the amendments are workable.

These conclusions will be reported to the ministers from member states - Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett included.

Pressure will be put on the Government over the coming weeks by leading equine welfare charity the ILPH and by the Western Morning News.

Defra officials have previously told the WMN that the ban would be illegal under EU law.