HC Deb 29 April 1954 vol 526 cc1944-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Conant.]

11.27 p.m.

Mr. Howard Johnson (Brighton, Kemptown)

I want to raise a matter which is causing grave anxiety among a large section of the community—whether there is cruelty to horses in steeplechasing, and, in particular, in the Grand National. May I make two points clear? First, on behalf of myself and other hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House who support my views, we do not wish to abolish steeplechasing or the Grand National? All we wish the Government to do is to use their influence to ensure that there is no cruelty in steeplechasing or the Grand National.

Secondly, may I offer my thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for the great interest he has taken in the matter, and for the fact that he invited the stewards of the National Hunt Committee to meet him yesterday, presumably to discuss recommendations for making the Grand National safe. I hope we shall hear from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary something of what took place at those discussions yesterday.

The question now is whether the Grand National does involve cruelty to the horses. Under Section 1 (a) of the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, it is an offence cruelly to beat, override or overdrive any animal or cause it so to be used. Mr. Justice Wightman, as long ago as 1863, gave what he described as a rough and ready description of cruelty, which was that cruelty is unnecessary abuse of the animal. If we could analyse figures and statistics available in connection with both the Grand National and steeplechasing I think the whole House would agree that there is justification for the great anxiety that many hundreds of thousand of people feel, in particular over the Grand National as it is run at present.

I have had over 600 letters, telegrams and petitions, all of them completely unsolicited, because there is no pressure group working on the subject. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has ridden a middle course in this matter. It has not invoked any agitation and the 600 letters that I have received and the large number of communications that hon. Members on both sides of the House have received are completely unsolicited. They spring from a deep feeling that horses are being cruelly treated, particularly in the Grand National.

The figures, which are illuminating, are difficult to obtain. It is not easy to get the National Hunt Committee or the promoters of the Grand National to give any figures. They are not very prone to quote figures. I trust that tie figures that I shall give to the House are accurate. I have obtained them from figures given in the newspapers at the times of the various races. In 1950, 49 horses started in the Grand National, only seven managed to finish the course and two were killed or destroyed on the course. In 1951, 36 horses started the race and only three managed to finish the course. I am glad to say that in that year no horse was killed.

In 1952, 47 horses started and only 12 finished, one was killed and one was so seriously injured that he has not been able to run again. In 1953, 31 horses started the race, only five finished and two were killed. This year 29 started, only nine finished and four were killed. Therefore, in this so-called Grand National we have a grand total of 192 horses which started and a total of only 36 that managed to finish. If my mathematics are correct, about one-fifth of the horses that started the race managed to stay the course, and a grand total of nine horses have been killed in the last five Grand Nationals.

Mr. Eric Johnson (Manchester, Blackley) rose

Mr. Johnson

I cannot give way, as I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) may be fortunate enough to be called, because the Aintree course is in his constituency.

I cannot give any period for these figures, but I have managed to find the names of no fewer than 53 horses that have been killed or destroyed on the course at Aintree in the running of the Grand National—53 horses killed or destroyed in what is called a sporting activity. Can one wonder that people are irate at this wicked massacre and slaughter of dumb animals? For the 1952–53 National Hunt season I have managed to find the names of no fewer than 202 horses killed in steeplechasing. It would not be unfair to say that if I can find as many as 202 killed in one year of steeplechasing the total must be very much higher, and that completely excludes all horses maimed, crippled, trampled on and otherwise damaged for life by being put in races for which they are not suitable and in which the obstacles are far too great for the animals to manage to negotiate.

Those are the facts, and, I believe, show quite conclusively that this type of race in its present form, should not, in all public decency, be tolerated in this country any longer. What about the course itself? It is 4½ miles long, and has 31 fences; and I am advised by some of those people who know all there is to know about steeplechasing that it is the most gruelling steeplechase in the world.

There is nobody in this House who knows less about steeplechasing than I, and that is the very reason why I feel that I can speak not for the vested interests of racing, but for ordinary, decent people who are shocked and horrified at the massacre which is carried on in the name of racing. If I had a vested interest I should not feel so well qualified to raise this matter on behalf of people who, like myself, know only of the vast number of horses killed, or afterwards destroyed, in the Grand National and in steeplechasing generally.

There have been a great many recommendations made by persons who know a great deal about racing, and I see from the "Observer" that John Hislop, who, I presume, is the racing correspondent of that newspaper, and who, I understand, has ridden several times in the Grand National, wrote only a few weeks ago: There are a few owners and trainers who do not appreciate the difference between a horse suited to Aintree and one who is not … Owners should ensure that horses are in a thoroughly fit condition to run, especially with regard to the state of the horse's heart. The fences should be of birch instead of thorns.… and these words are most illuminating in my opinion thereby eliminating the chances of a horse being staked. This, I remind hon. Members, is a "sport" in which an experienced correspondent of a reliable newspaper writes of the chances of a horse being staked. How horribly nauseating! He goes on: The ditch on the landing side of Beecher's Brook should be filled in as it is an unnecessarily and occasionally dangerous trap. This race has been going on for years with this trap and with fences capable of staking horses, and yet there are some people who criticise such as myself for regarding these conditions as being outrageously cruel to the animals concerned.

If I may, I would just say something of the recommendations which, I understand, have been made. First, that there should be a revision of the conditions of entry, both for horses and for jockeys, so that only the best quality horses may run, and only fully experienced jockeys may be allowed to ride. Secondly, that the field should be limited to 20; thirdly, that the 4½ miles course is too long; fourthly, that the jumps are too solid, too numerous, and too severe; and, in this connection, I would ask if all hon. Members realise that the jumps are of growing trees which are merely lopped. That they are trees now deep rooted into the earth, and with enormously thick trunks. They are, therefore, completely rigid. All this nonsense that one sees of putting brushwood over them is only to make them look a little less formidable than they are.

The next suggestion is that no horse should be allowed to carry on handicap over 12 stone.

Mr. Speaker

I do not know whether the hon. Member is now proposing legislation to give effect to all these conditions, because that would be out of order on the Adjournment.

Mr. Johnson

I fully appreciate that, Mr. Speaker. I am trying to suggest that these are matters for which the Government should set up a committee of inquiry, from which the Government should receive recommendations.

One of the matters which I should very much like the Minister to bring before the committee, if he is good enough to have a committee formed, is that there should be, not merely a cursory veterinary inspection, but a completely thorough veterinary inspection at the first forfeit stage of the race and that in that veterinary inspection there should be the use of the electro-cardiagraph to ensure that no horse is liable to drop dead during the race from cardio-vascular disease.

The other recommendation which I should like to be put before the stewards of the National Hunt Committee is that ferocious whipping should be eliminated. If anyone wishes to see a thoroughly nauseating sight, let him see the film of the Grand National and see the two horses being whipped ferociously and solidly right from the last jump to the winning post. If that does not constitute cruelty to animals, I cannot understand what is cruelty.

Mr. R. Brooman-White (Rutherglen) rose

Mr. Johnson

If you or I, Mr. Speaker, saw at the end of its day's work a horse pulling a cart being whipped ferociously and solidly by the person driving it, we know perfectly well that that person would be brought before the magistrates and, I trust and hope, would be convicted under the Section of the Act to which I have referred.

I hope that the Minister will form a committee and that it will not consist exclusively of members of the National Hunt Committee, because, reputable gentlemen though they may be, they must in a matter of this nature be a little suspect as to whether their sympathies are not entirely with the keeping of the Grand National in its present form. I suggest that the committee should consist of persons not only from the National Hunt Committee, but also from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and of other individuals who would be of use on a committee of this nature.

If that is not done, while I do not wish to incite anybody here, I feel that if the Grand National in particular is run in its present form again next year, there will be ugly demonstrations, because feeling now is most acute that this race, with its cruelty, must be modified so that cruelty no longer exists.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown (Mr. H. Johnson) for allowing me two minutes in which to make a few observations on this important matter. I am not sure what is a fair Parliamentary proportion and whether it is possible to put right in two minutes the inaccuracies, exaggerations and distortions of 15 minutes, but I realise that that is no responsibility of my hon. Friend.

This great race—and it is a great race—is a very important part of our horse-racing season. It is, in fact, the summit of the steeplechasing events of the steeple-chasing season. Entered into the race are only horses which have passed a stiff and recognised qualification. They have to pass a qualification which includes success in similar races or round similar courses. There is no question whatever at present of horses which are, on the face of it, unsuited for the course being entered.

Nevertheless, I will agree with my hon. Friend as far as this: that if a system can be devised which will ensure that only horses suitable for entering a race around this course as it is now, and of having a reasonable chance of completing the course, are accepted, then we should certainly examine those proposals. If only jockeys are allowed to enter who have demonstrated that they have the necessary qualifications for completing the set course on such a horse, then I think we ought to examine proposals to secure that end.

What I want us to avoid more than anything else is that we should so distort this race that the so-called Grand National that would result would be nothing more than a small park course requiring the skill, strength and stamina of third-rate horses. We have, in this great race, a contest between horses of a supreme class, which demands strength, courage, and stamina in horse and man.

I have no authority whatever to speak for the promoters of the race, but I do know that the course has, on many occasions in recent years, been considerably altered to facilitate smooth running of the race, and I believe that the pro-motors would be willing to do what they can in framing any measure to ensure that without destroying the character of the Grand National.

11.47 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

There has been considerable discussion of the Grand National this year, and I think everyone, whatever his views on the subject, will regret the death of the four horses which fell in the race. It is entirely proper for my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown (Mr. H. Johnson) to call attention to the matter on the Adjournment and to suggest action which might be taken by the authorities who are in a position to take action, or, indeed, by the Government, so long as he does not suggest legislation.

I must say a word now about the attitude of the Government to this matter. The hon. Member has asked for an inquiry, and I think the House will appreciate that the suggestion of an inquiry is often a device to urge legislation when it would be out of order to do so specifically. I do not for a moment charge my hon. Friend with that and I shall assume that he is not proposing to urge legislation. Therefore, I must simply repeat to him that in the view of my right hon. and learned Friend an inquiry would serve no useful purpose. The facts are known, and the law on the subject is known and explicit.

My hon. Friend referred to Section (1) of the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, and that is a relevant statute. Whether it is applicable in any particular case is a matter for a court of justice, and it would be entirely improper for me to express any opinion on the matter here this evening. I should add that, as in the field of the criminal law generally, it is no part of the Home Secretary's responsibility to institute criminal proceedings. I cannot emphasise that too strongly. I understand that there were several inspectors of the R.S.P.C.A., and, I believe, also representatives of other animal protection societies present at Aintree when the race was held, and I think I had best leave the matter there.

As regards the running of the race, I have already said the Government have no responsibility in the matter at all. The regulation of the conditions is a matter for the authorities concerned, in this case the National Hunt Committee. It is certainly no part of the Government's duties to interfere with the National Hunt Committee in the execution of its powers and duties. I do not believe that anyone has argued or would argue that the Government should interfere with the National Hunt Committee in that connection.

Of course, the Government cannot remain wholly indifferent in a matter of such widespread interest on which many constructive proposals have been put forward both in the Press and to the Government directly. It is certainly proper that the Government should do what is necessary to bring the views that have been expressed to the notice of those who are responsible. It was for that reason that my right hon. and learned Friend invited the stewards of the National Hunt Committee to meet him. That meeting had the additional advantage that he was able to be fully informed by them of the material facts as they knew them.

It is my duty to give the main facts to the House—I can do so only very shortly tonight—as accurately and as freely from bias as I am able to do. Let me first say something about the four fatal accidents which are the whole cause of this debate. The horse, Legal Joy, had been second in the 1952 Grand National. It fell in the first round at the 13th fence, which is a plain fence and one of the lowest in the race. The horse, Dominick's Bar, collapsed and died at the second fence. The horse, Paris—New York, fell at the fourth, which is a plain fence 4 feet 10 inches high.

So far as those three horses are concerned it was certainly not the kind of obstacle referred to by my hon. Friend, or the length of the face, that appears to have had anything to do with the matter. The horse, Coneyburrow, fell at the 28th fence which is 5 ft. high with a ditch 4 feet 7 inches wide. That horse had previously made a mistake. He did not appear to have suffered from that as he caught up with the leaders again. He had already won the Grand Sefton Steeplechase over three miles of the same course last November. I have stated the facts as objectively as I can without seeking to place any emphasis upon them, since I conceive that to be my duty.

As regards the qualification for the runners in the race, when the race was resumed after the war the qualification was that a horse must have been placed first, second or third in a steeplechase of a certain value and over a certain distance. In 1952, this qualification was tightened up and it was only winners of such races that were qualified to enter the Grand National. It is, no doubt, because of that change that there has been a tendency towards smaller fields. This year the field was the smallest since the war.

The attention of the Home Secretary has been drawn by the stewards to a document containing the names of 45 horses which are stated to have been killed in the race. I think that that document has been fairly widely circulated. The stewards have checked the information in that document, and have told the Home Secretary that the list begins with the year 1839. According to the information which is available to them six, at least, of the horses listed did not die in the Grand National. It is right that I should mention that categorical information. It gives some idea of what the position is over a rather long range of time, and it is desirable that the House should be given the best information available to the Government.

I have given the bare, principal facts as I know them. I have listened to what has been said by my hon. Friends on this matter, and I can assure them and the House that what has been said will be considered by the Government and will be brought to the notice of the National Hunt Committee and of the other authorities concerned.

Adjourned accordingly at Four Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.