HC Deb 01 February 1952 vol 495 cc594-601

Order for Second Reading read.

3.38 p.m.

Mr. Græme Finlay (Epping)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill is a short amending Measure which is designed to put into practical force the Act of 1939. My first submission to the House is that it is bad in principle to have upon the Statute Book an Act the object of which is not being effectively fulfilled. I know that some hon. Members consider that Friday Private Members' Bills have no very useful purpose, but I hope that after having heard the case for this Bill they will not reach that conclusion.

The object of the Riding Establishments Act of 1939 was to see that riding establishments were inspected with a view to protecting horses which were being let out to ride for profit in such a condition that the riding of them would cause them suffering. Section 1 of that Act gave the local authority, who were made the enforcing power for the purpose of the Act, discretionary power to inspect riding establishments by authorising veterinary surgeons, in writing, so to do.

I had better read out the definition of "Riding establishments" which is contained in the 1939 Act. That Act provides as follows: 'Riding establishment' means any stables or other premises whatsoever at which horses are kept for the purpose of being let out on hire for riding or of being used in providing in return for payment instruction in riding, but shall not include any such establishment, conducted solely for military or police purposes or by the Zoological Society of London. So the effect of it is that if a person makes a business of letting out horses and uses premises for that purpose, then he constitutes his premises as a riding establishment within the terms of the Act of 1939.

The purpose of this Bill briefly is this. First, it aims to put teeth into the Act of 1939, which is, for practical purposes, ineffective, by enforcing registration of riding establishment premises—that is in Clause 1—for a small fee, a 5s. fee, as set out in Clause 2. Hon. Members will notice that this is no requirement in the character of licensing. There is no question of refusing registration. It is an automatic process which follows application to be put on the record.

The object is to ensure that local authorities, the enforcing authorities, know where riding establishments are. It may seem strange that they should not, but when one reflects on it, it is, perhaps, not as peculiar as may at first seem to be the case, because local authorities are comparatively large corporate bodies, and, without having registers containing particulars of these establishments, it is difficult for them to know where they are. I have, in fact, evidence on this point. It is to the effect that in one small town, the Borough of Lytham St. Annes, the deputy town clerk, and presumably the corporation, and the local authorities' officers did not know where no fewer than five of these riding establishments were.

It may be suggested—I do not know whether it will—that if a riding establishment is of a shady character, which it is the object of the Bill to prohibit or restrain, it will not be prevented because it will not be discovered, but, in fact, the evidence shows quite convincingly and persuasively that these cases are reported by the police from time to time. They come to the notice of veterinary surgeons who report them, and visitors to stables, who have, perhaps, a greater conscience regarding horses, also report them to the local authorities. That is the way these cases come to light.

The second main object of this Bill is to ensure that local authorities have riding establishments within their areas inspected at least once per annum. There is evidence that establishes that local authorities do not in all cases, although they do in some, exercise their powers.

My personal attitude to this Bill is this. I am not a sentimentalist about it. I am not going to produce any horror stories. I am not going to indulge in any exaggeration. Nor, indeed, have I any particular equestrian qualifications, such as has my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel R. Clarke), who supports me, and who is, in fact, a master of foxhounds and who knows very much more, on the technical side, about horses than I do. However, I have derived a great deal of enjoyment from the horse and I feel that I owe it a debt which I should repay. I am a believer in the liberty of the individual; I hate paper bureaucracy; I do not like the name "licensing" or the expression "registration"; but I think that if a reasonable case can be made for it, as in this case it can, then it is a sort of thing one is compelled to do to protect horses from being abused.

In support of this Bill we have not only the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but the local authorities' associations principally concerned. The County Councils' Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations—with certain modifications and reservations—and the Urban District Councils' Association have all expressed themselves in its favour. On the equestrian side there is the British Horse Society, which is the most eminent horse society in the country. On the veterinary side, there is the official body of the veterinary profession, the National Veterinary Medical Association.

Horse-riding is no longer a patrician, semi-feudal or even agricultural pastime. It is very much more democratic than it has been in the past, and is very much more a pastime of those living on the fringes of urban areas. Since 1939, when the Act we seek to amend was introduced, there has been a great growth of riding establishments of all kinds, and the popularity of riding as a healthy pastime has so increased that today there are about 1,000 riding establishments in the country. It has so developed that a, holiday camps horse-riding is available, so that riding establishments are set up nearby. The cost is quite modest, so it is no longer confined to a privileged or exclusive few.

In these days suffering to horses is more likely to come from lack of horsemanship or technical knowledge or ignorance than from deliberate cruelty. The urban population who desire to take this healthy form of exercise are, perhaps, by reason of their urban background, less likely to understand the technical methods of the management of horses.

I have said that the powers of inspection under the Act are not being enforced comprehensively by local authorities, although there are, I am pleased to say, many notable exceptions. Local authorities who do not enforce these powers give three main reasons for not doing so. First, they are prepared to do so only if they first receive reports that animals suffer at riding establishments in their area; second, they are not prepared to go to the expense of employing a veterinary surgeon for the purpose of inspection: and third, they do not consider that there are sufficient riding establishments in their area to warrant inspection.

On that, I make these three comments. First, the object of the 1939 Act was to prevent suffering taking place, and we are not likely to achieve that object if we wait until cruelty does actually take place and it is reported. Second, the expense involved is very modest. Third, as there is no register local authorities do not know of all the riding establishments in their areas; these establishments constantly spring up, some in quite isolated parts of the country, while others close down.

Where there is inspection by local authorities the evidence which I have in my possession—I shall not go into it at too great length now, because my time is limited—shows that, where use is made of the powers under the 1939 Act, riding establishments are run properly, there is a good standard of stabling and horse management, and the horses are in fit condition. If we contrast that with areas where these powers are not used, we find that vigilance of the R.S.P.C.A. has detected a large number of cases where horses are not properly looked after. The sort of things one finds are horses in various conditions of bad health, poor bodily condition, with girth sores, old saddle sores, suppurating sores in the withers, and similar horse ailments which are the result of neglect.

The object of the Bill is to give effective life to the 1939 Act, because experience shows that where that Act is enforced the horses are protected. I think that it is a bad thing that horses should be exploited for purposes of gain. Unfortunately, when a horse is neglected it cannot tell the man or woman who neglects it what it thinks of him or her, and it has to suffer in silence. Veterinary surgeons who would be inspecting premises under this Bill would, in fact, be welcomed by all the best riding establishments. They are capable of giving advice and assistance, and, in my submission, any good riding establishment has nothing to fear from the Bill. Therefore, I hope that it will commend itself to hon. Members and that they will give it a Second Reading.

3.51 p.m.

Colonel Ralph Clarke (East Grinstead)

I beg to second the Motion.

When the original Bill was brought forward in 1939 I was one of its backers and spoke in support of it. That Bill went up late to Committee on 29th of June and, therefore, the promoters felt that they could not resist any considerable argument against it, and it was very much watered down. One result, however, has been that since the war the East Sussex County Council, I am glad to say, took steps to implement the provision of that Bill. They arranged that veterinary inspectors should be able to inspect half-yearly and make additional inspections when required. That has been done, but they have been hampered by the fact that they cannot obtain accurate information of how many establishments there are and where they are.

It is essential that a local authority should have knowledge of the riding establishments that exist in their area. At present they get some information from the police, some from the R.S.P.C.A., some from veterinary surgeons, and some, once a year, from the parish councils. I suggest that the work involved in obtaining information in that way is infinitely greater than would be the case if these establishments had to register themselves.

This being so, the East Sussex County Council took the matter up with the County Councils' Association, who were in favour of some change being made in the law. One particular case concerned my own council. We heard of a prosecution by the R.S.P.C.A. of a woman for an offence under the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, as a result of which the justices ordered a horse to be destroyed. The County Council then made one of their inspections as a result of which two more convictions were obtained against her. She later left the district and has now probably started afresh in some other district.

I feel that hardship to horses is going on, and that it is largely the result of ignorance and not malicious. Compulsory periodic inspection by recognised veterinary officers would give the opportunity for advice to be given in respect of hundreds of horses, and thus prevent inadvertent cruelty. I think that these are the main points in the Bill which has been so admirably moved by the proposer, and I shall not say more, so that I may leave time for anyone else who wishes to take part in the debate.

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

I should like to offer a word or two of comment on the Bill which has been presented to us, because I feel that a great deal of what is suggested is unnecessary. I understood from my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Finlay) that powers exist in the Act of 1939 whereby local authorities may, if they so desire, carry out an inspection of any riding establishments and to take such action as is necessary to deal with the treatment of horses in such establishments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping suggested that some local authorities are not doing their job very well. That may be so, but if a local authority is not doing its job under the 1939 Act, I do not see how we shall make it do it any better merely by insisting that it keeps a register of the premises which are used as riding establishments. I do not follow the argument which suggests that the mere keeping of a register will make these authorities more efficient in the exercise of the powers they already possess under the 1939 Act. This Bill is unnecessary because it does not give the local authority any greater powers than it has at the moment if it chooses to use them. I do not see how we can force a local authority to take any action if it does not desire to do so.

One of the reasons why this measure has been introduced is that, according to my hon. Friend, no one knows where these riding establishments are. That is an interesting argument. I am puzzled to know how a riding establishment manages to carry on successfully its business of hiring out horses if it is so tucked away that no one knows where to go to hire a horse. I must confess that that theory is a little difficult to follow.

Mr. Finlay

It is not the people who want to hire the horses who do not know where these establishments are; it is the local authorities who do not know.

Mr. McAdden

That is the point I had in mind. My hon. Friend says that the local authorities do not know where the riding establishments are situated, but by some mysterious means people who want to hire a horse do discover, with a great wealth of ability and research, where these places are. That simple task obviously is beyond the power of the local authority.

Colonel Clarke

I do not think my hon. Friend has read Clause 3, which makes it incumbent upon local authorities to carry out this inspection. They were not forced to do it in the past.

Mr. McAdden

That raises another point, and I should like to finish the one I am dealing with, which is the question of the inaccessibility of these establishments. Everybody knows where they are except the local authority. I do not believe that is possible. I cannot imagine that a riding establishment could build up a successful business without the local authority getting to hear about it some way or another. It is reasonable to suppose that the local authority would find out where it was when it wanted to collect its rates, and no local authority worthy of the name would have the slightest difficulty in discovering the existence of any riding establishment within its area.

My own constituency is fairly large and we have some riding establishments in it, but I have had no difficulty whatsoever in finding out where they were, and I can assist the local authority or my hon. Friend to discover their whereabouts. I am just as keen as any hon. Member on either side of the House about the health and well-being of horses. I am greatly interested in horses. I do not know how we are to bring about an improvement in the treatment of animals by blinding ourselves to the fact that this Bill does not do anything to help them. All it does is to make it compulsory for every riding establishment to be registered with the local authority. The local authority has all the necessary powers at its disposal to obtain this information if, in fact, it is genuinely interested—

Mr. Finlay rose in his place and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put"; but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.

Mr. McAdden

This question becomes more difficult because if the local authorities are not interested in the subject, the fact that we compel them to make an early inspection does not guarantee that cruelty to horses will thereby be removed. If the veterinary officer of the local authority refuses to carry out an inspection on 1st January that satisfies—

Mr. Ian Harvey (Harrow, East)

Would my hon. Friend tell me to what committee of the local authority the veterinary officer is responsible?

Mr. McAdden

I take it that that would vary with the local authority concerned. The local authority leaves the question of riding establishments to different committees—

It being Four o'Clock the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.