HC Deb 24 June 1966 vol 730 cc1181-95

Order for Second Reading read.

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

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

First, I must apologise to the House on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart), whose Bill this is. My hon. Friend has a long-standing constituency engagement which he had to fulfil today. Equally, he felt that, as the Bill was supported by all the pony societies in the United Kingdom and it was ready, we ought to get it started on its Parliamentary course. He hopes, therefore, that the House will understand why he cannot be here today, although he is most anxious that the opportunity of an early place in the Ballot should be taken so that we may take the Bill to Committee and speed it on its way to the Statute Book.

The House will have noted that the Bill is supported by hon. Members on both sides. It has the support of the Parliamentary Animal Welfare Committee. It is supported by all the principal breeders of ponies in the United Kingdom. I say at once that relevant to the Bill is the Export of Horses (Excepted Cases) Order, 1966, S.I. 508. I am most grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the part he has played in the laying of this Order which preceded the Bill. Everyone who breeds ponies or who is worried about the welfare of ponies is very grateful to him. We have had his sympathetic ear, and I know that he has done an immense amount of work to honour that Order brought before the House. But I must tell him that, although he was working frightfully hard, the machinery of Whitehall and St. Andrew's House is such that some of us despaired of ever seeing that Order brought in. This is why the working party which gave birth to the Bill was set out.

The merit of the Order is that it ensures that every pony is inspected by a veterinary surgeon at the port of exit to be certain that it is fit to travel. That is all the veterinary surgeon has to certify. We are concerned, however, that the Order in itself does not go far enough. It provides for exemption of certain horses from examination before export, including, under paragraph 3(c), any horse, other than a mule or ass, which the Minister is satisfied is intended for breeding. The whole reason for this Bill is the grave concern felt about the way ponies go out of this country. Hitherto, on an open general licence from the Board of Trade, up to 30 ponies in one go can be sent, the idea being that there will be inspectors at the port. The principal port for this trade is on the East Coast. But we have found even geldings going out, on open general licence, on the understanding that they were going for breeding. There is genuine concern about the way the exemption of ponies going for breeding is abused by the exporters of ponies.

The House will know that there has been genuine anxiety felt by all people interested in ponies, by breeders and by those concerned with horse and animal welfare, about the fate of our ponies when they reach the Continent. It must be said that, so far, no one has been able to produce positive proof that ponies from the United Kingdom are being slaughtered on the Continent for food. An investigation has been carried out by the Horses and Ponies Protection Association. Investigations have been carried out by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There is an unclaimed award offered by the National Pony Society for concrete evidence of the slaughter of ponies for human consumption. This reward has not been claimed, and the case has not been proved.

But anyone going to the ports and seeing what happens must be very worried on seeing the type of pony which is going out. No one can say that scrub ponies and unbroken ponies are going to meet the colossal demand there is on the Continent for children's riding ponies. No one can say that yearlings, going at the price they are, when they cannot possibly be ridden for three or four years, are going out for riding or breeding purposes.

The Bill does nothing more than extend to ponies the same protection as has been extended to horses. There is a minimum value at which a horse may be exported from this country. There is a minimum value for mules, one for donkeys and one for vanners. But when that Act was drawn up there was no minimum value fixed for ponies.

A working party was set up composed of a number of organisations. It included the Horses and Ponies Protection Association and the Ponies of Britain—and that organisation has done a vast amount of work on the Bill. But for the efficiency of that organisation we should never have been able to reach agreement on the Schedule to the Bill which divides all the native breeds of ponies by their ages and categories into an appropriate minimum value. It will be appreciated that to consult nine pony breed societies and to get an agreed answer from them all was a major effort.

The Working Party also included the British Horse Society, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—who at their annual meeting the other day, gave the Bill a special blessing—the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and, most important of all—I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will note this—on the Working Party was the principal exporter of ponies from this country, Mr. Watts of Russell, Baldwin and Bright, one of the largest breeders for the export trade.

When the Working Party had completed its deliberations and reached complete agreement, the Bill was produced, and it was presented to all other interested parties at a meeting in the House of Commons on 18th May. It received the support of everyone. Most important of all, the Bill received the support of the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society, one of the societies actively involved in protecting the ponies on their own moors, and the New Forest Society for The Protection of Ponies also supported the Bill.

There is one outstanding query on the Bill—a point raised by the National Pony Society. This was the question of the minimum value which the Bill fixes for ponies which have not been registered with a breed society. It must be appreciated that Private Members' Bills came on at a great pace this year and we had to produce our Bills much sooner than many of us expected. In the time available it was not possible to obtain from the National Pony Society and breeders of unregistered ponies a proper schedule on the basis of height for value, but I give the House an undertaking that if they give the Bill a Second Reading I will incorporate in Committee a Second Schedule based on a minimum value for height of all unregistered ponies. In other words, the unregistered pony value of £80 in the Bill will go and will be replaced by a Schedule.

The Bill is very simple. Apart from the problems of unregistered ponies, it says quite clearly that no registered pony may be sent from this country unless there is a certificate in respect of it saying that it has been sold at over and above a certain value. We feel that by fixing the value in excess of the slaughter price on the Continent we go a long way to ensure that ponies are not slaughtered for meat on the Continent. One has to face the fact that most people on the Continent do not have the same high standard of treating horses and ponies as we have in this country so that many of these wretched animals in their old age will probably end up in the slaughterhouse. But by fixing a decent and fair value, bearing in mind the value for breeding and riding, we ensure that the pony goes to someone paying the right price for the right purpose and will not find its way to the meat market at an early age.

There was a case in New Zealand the other day in which somebody wished to start a native breed of pony. In view of the very high price of transport they could not afford to transport ponies there and to pay the minimum value laid down in the Bill. We have, therefore, given an exemption in the Bill by which if the secretary of the breed society is satisfied that the person exporting the poney is genuinely seeking to found a breed of that pony in that country, he may issue a certificate so that the pony may be exported at below the minimum value in the Schedule. We also make it an offence to sell a pony as a native pony which is not registered as a native pony. This is a provision which everybody interested in ponies will welcome. The way some of the more inexperienced dealers are selling our native ponies abroad and are describing them as of the native breeds is an embarrassment, for they certainly are not of these breeds. This would be a very valuable provision of the Bill.

In view of the vast amount of work and support from outside organisations, with the proviso that the objections of the National Pony Society on a value for unregistered ponies would be met, I hope that the House will agree to give this much-needed Bill a Second Reading. It would not reach the Statute Book until we had 17 months operation of the Order. Many people feel that the Order is in itself not adequate and that, if we are to protect ponies properly, we should have both the Order and the Bill.

3.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Mackie)

It might help the House if I give the Government's view now. I fully understand why the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) is not here but I should point out that he is my regular "pair" and it is a little hard that he should be lolling in Edinburgh while I have to work here.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) has put his points ably. He has knowledge of the subject, as we all know. I thank him for his kind words and slight criticism of my Department and Government Departments in general because of the delay in laying the Order. I thought that he might have been satisfied with the Order and I am sorry that he is not.

However, he has given his reasons and I appreciate that the Bill is sponsored by hon. Members of all parties. I also appreciate the amount of work that he has done, together with the members of the Working Party, to get agreement— I know how difficult that must have been—among the various bodies concerned. Such interests, as I know, always keep our mailbags full.

The hon. Gentleman says that the Order does not go far enough, that the delay in getting it laid led to the Working Party being set up and that the Bill is the result of the Working Party's work. He has explained that the Bill is principally designed to safeguard the welfare of exported ponies. All of us here are closely interested in animal welfare and would agree with his objective and do all we can to help.

Indeed, it has been the policy of the Government and of their predecessors over many years that all reasonable steps should be taken to minimise animal suffering, particularly in long travel. We want to ensure that suffering is kept to the absolute minimum possible. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we take steps to ensure this by means of the Balfour assurances when dealing with other kinds of animals going to various countries abroad.

As I understand it, the background to the Bill is the trade which has developed in recent years in the sale of native British ponies to the Continent. Riding, for example, is becoming increasingly popular everywhere. The trade has increased considerably and the Bill is intended to control it so that it is restricted to ponies for breeding and riding and is not used to send animals to slaughter.

A large number of cases of alleged export for slaughter have been brought to our attention but very little proof has been introduced. When investigated, they have not been substantiated. If they had been, then the trade would have been limited severely. It has been suggested that the trade is mainly in animals for slaughter. The Department has gone into this at considerable expense and trouble—we have sent people abroad to investigate—as have the various societies mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but these allegations have not been substantiated.

Another suggestion which has been made is that the animals concerned are of a type which is not fit for travel. Again, our investigations show that in nearly every case this is not so. However, we agree that fitness for the journey is an important factor in the welfare of animals in transport. One of the provisions included in the new Orders dealing with the export of ponies and horses which took effect earlier this month was that ponies of the class with which the Bill is concerned would not be exported unless they had been inspected by an official veterinary surgeon and certified fit for the journey. I had discussions with the hon. Member for Gainsborough about this, and I thought that he agreed that this would eliminate a tremendous amount of suffering.

After all, a qualified "vet" at the port does not need to make a full veterinary examination, which is a very complicated and expensive business and a much longer process, but could have the animals run past him, and there are facilities for doing that, and so be able to eliminate a tremendous number of animals which were not fit for the journey. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would be satisfied with the Order. We feel that we would like to give it a run for a year at least, before taking further action, to see whether it eliminated what we admit to have been happening to some horses and ponies unfit for travelling. That is one of the reasons why I am disappointed that we have failed to satisfy the people concerned.

As I have said, all of us are greatly concerned about the welfare of animals and I understand and sypathise with the motives of everyone concerned with introducing the Bill. However, I believe that the provisions of the new Orders about which I have been speaking, together with all the other regulations which will prescribe conditions aboard ship, will provide what we call a reasonable degree of protection. I do not think that we would be justified in causing an extensive interference with the trade, and I am sure that the Bill would impose an extensive interference with the trade.

After all, Her Majesty's Government simply have no jurisdiction over what happens to the animals on the other side. Many years ago, I read a story, I think in the Strand, written by Somerset Maugham, I believe—it was certainly the sort of story which he wrote—describing the situation in a hunting area in this country in which people were worried about this same trade going abroad for human consumption. To cut the story short, they raised funds to keep the animals in this country to feed the hounds.

I know the feeling about ponies, and one has read of pets going abroad to be slaughtered, but we have no control over what happens when they are abroad and, as the hon. Gentleman himself said, when these animals come to the end of their lives, if they have been sent to countries in which horseflesh is eaten, they end up in the slaughterhouse, anyway. Therefore, unless the hon. Gentleman wants to stop export altogether, ultimately they will be slaughtered if they go to countries which eat horseflesh.

As the hon. Gentleman knows very well, in Shetland and Orkney and other parts of Scotland and in Wales the trade is of considerable importance, and we would not like to do anything which would damage the legitimate trade in ponies for riding and breeding.

I come now to the provisions of the Bill in a little more detail. It is not quite so simple as the hon. Gentleman makes out. Everybody who presents a Bill always starts by saying that it is a very simple Bill with only three Clauses, but when this Bill is examined closely, it is seen to be not so simple. It is intended to prevent the export of ponies for slaughter, but it falls down in two ways. It does not make a distinction between the low-priced ponies which its supporters believe may be going for slaughter and similarly priced animals going for other purposes. Nor does it guarantee that animals valued above the minimum price will not be slaughtered. Obviously, they will be when they come to the end of their working days, as I have explained.

If the House desires to eliminate the possibility of horses being exported for slaughter, the only way to do so, as I have said, is to prohibit the export of all horses except valuable breeding stock and similar categories which there is no difficulty about distinguishing.

Secondly, the Bill requires Ministry veterinary staff to exercise their judgment as to the value of horses. This would be an exceptionally difficult task. I accept that it is only a practical difficulty, and not an argument of principle and that practical difficulties can be overcome through expenditure of time and money and the use of expert veterinarians, of whom we are very short. There are a lot of other things that we should like them to be doing other than spending their time carrying out this task.

I do not wish to use up the time of the House in discussing questions like the market value of various breeds, which is a vast subject raising problems of dispute and arbitration. Everyone would think that their ponies should be in such a category. The number of veterinary examinations, as distinct from inspection, would be out of all proportion to the importance of the subject. We believe that Clause 3 involves a serious anomaly.

The present stallion licensing scheme recognises both pedigree, or registered, and non-pedigree animals of the various breeds. We cannot accept that there are good reasons, on livestock improvement grounds, for restricting sales in the way envisaged in Clause 3. I cannot think that even the hon. Member for Gainsborough could suggest what Clause 3 has to do with the export of ponies if the restrictions were to apply only within this country and have nothing to do with exports.

The Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland, and we know that Northern Ireland is a loophole in many other ways besides getting ponies out of the country. But apart from anything else in the Bill, leaving such a loophole would prejudice its intentions. I do not want to go any further than I have done, but I think that I have said plenty to show that the Government could not support this Bill, although, as I think the hon. Member for Gainsborough and his sponsors are aware, they are in sympathy with what the Bill wants to do and feel that the Order, which was laid only about three weeks ago, if given a proper run, will carry out the ideas behind the Bill to everyone's satisfaction.

3.37 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

The House is becoming used to the fact that Ministers seldom seem to have done their homework well and, much as I like and respect the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, I feel that he has lapsed into that category which we have come to know so well in the past few weeks. If the hon. Gentleman had looked back at the Act of 1937, a major Act in this connection, he would have found that the reasons for the Act, to protect the export of horses, were because of the knowledge and the fears that horses would be sent abroad and slaughtered for food.

I would commend to him, before he and his colleagues completely close their minds to the acceptance of this Bill, an inspection of the speeches made by my very distinguished predecessor, Sir Robert Gower, who was also Chairman of the R.S.C.P.A.—on the Council of which I have the honour to sit—and the other speeches made when the original Bill was amended. What was the subject of the main argument? It was that this country objected to the export of horses purely and simply for slaughter. Therefore, they decided that the best way to ensure that these animals were protected against import for slaughter was to fix a minimum price.

Mr. John Mackie

Would the hon. Gentleman say where in my speech I indicated that I did not appreciate this point?

Mr. Burden

If the hon. Gentleman appreciates this point, he has gone most of the way to accept the reason for the Bill.

Mr. Mackie

I did not use the word "appreciate" in the sense that the hon. Gentleman is indicating. I meant that I did know this point.

Mr. Burden

Now the hon. Gentleman has qualified it. He says that he knew it; he did not appreciate it. Certainly Ministers on the previous occasion appreciated it. I accept that when he says that he appreciated it, like so many Ministers on the benches opposite, he said what he fell but in the circumstances of his brief was forced to change his view. We are becoming used to that.

A Statutory Instrument dated this year, No. 507, prescribes in paragraph (5). minimum values of certain categories of horses for the purposes of section 37 of the Act. It sets the price of a heavy draught horse at £135; a vanner, mule or jennet at £125; and an ass at £25. Why, If there is no purpose in setting minimum prices for ponies, why should there be minimum prices for these horses? Why should they not be abolished rather than confirmed and increased? I should be happy to give way to the Minister if he would tell me the answer. [Interruption.] That is an indication: the hon. Gentleman does not know.

What we are asking, surely in a logical manner, is that if minimum prices are laid down to protect the draught horse and other horses from export for slaughter, why should not the pony be so protected.

When the original Act was introduced, there was little need to protect ponies. At that time there were plenty of draught horses and heavy horses which were much more suitable for slaughter. The weight of the animal made it a suitable proposition for export for slaughter. But vanners and heavy draught horses no longer exist in considerable numbers. Now the pony is much more popular.

Attention has been drawn to the fact that a yearling pony would probably fetch a comparatively small price on the open market. A friend of mine told me only today that his family has a yearling pony the value of which is about £35. In view of the shortage of horse flesh, which is still much in demand on the Continent, that pony would probably be a very good proposition to import purely for slaughter. All that we are asking is that ponies should be given the protection given to heavier horses.

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary wants to see ponies exported in these circumstances.

Mr. John Mackie indicated dissent.

Mr. Burden

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman does not. Then why are not the Government prepared to go some little way in giving these animals the same protection which they have given to the heavier horses, the ass and the mule in the Statutory Instrument?

Mr. John Mackie

Has not the hon.

Member defeated his argument by his last few remarks when he said that the pony worth £35 would be an exportable proposition for slaughter? If that is the value of it, it is exactly in line with what I have said. We are just as interested as hon. Members opposite in animal welfare. Our duty is to ensure that no animal travels that is not fit to do so. The whole object of all the Acts and Orders is along that line.

I thought that I had made the point clearly that to value ponies which are way down in value compared with the other figures quoted by the hon. Member from the Statutory Instrument would cause difficulties and would require a staff of people for the purpose.

Mr. Burden

It is no more difficult to assess the value of a pony than of the other horses listed in the Statutory Instrument, on which prices are fixed. They are market values. All we are saying is that a pony should not be exported if its value is less than a certain figure.

I am particularly concerned at another aspect. These low-cost animals might well go abroad for research purposes, in some instances in laboratories on the Continent. I have serious concern at this aspect, not only in the case of horses, but of other animals. From the woolly Answers which I have received to Questions and the complete denial by the Government to take action, it seems to me that they are not paying the attention which they should to animals which are bred in research stations and sent abroad. We have no knowledge of the firms which breed them, where they go or the conditions under which they are sent.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe) rose

Mr. Burden

I am sorry, I cannot give way any more. As, however, the hon. and learned Member would obviously like to speak, I will be happy to finish quickly to give him an opportunity of doing so.

Mr. Scholefield Allen

I did not interrupt the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball), who finished his speech without mentioning a single Clause in the Bill, except a minor one. It is very complicated in many ways—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Member cannot make a speech on an intervention.

Mr. Scholefield Allen

I was about to ask the hon. Member, instead of making accusations against the Government, to go through the Bill and explain it.

Mr. Burden

The hon. and learned Member has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary went through the Bill Clause by Clause. This is Second Reading. Any Amendments which may be necessary can, if the Government agree in principle to allow the Bill to have a Second Reading, be attended to in Committee. My hon. Friend has made this clear.

I am dealing with the general aspect and the general situation. The Bill would make it uneconomic for people overseas to import ponies for slaughter purposes. We all know—and we accept this—that when ponies or horses become aged, they are almost inevitably slaughtered when they have passed their working life. This applies in Britain as in every other country. In the Bill, we are trying to preserve our young stock from being sent abroad and from being bred to go abroad for slaughter purposes.

I hope that despite the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's first implied refusal to allow the Bill to have a Second Reading, he will let it go through without a Division and allow it to go to Committee. The difficulties or differences which might have appeared could be removed with good will on both sides in Committee.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I have great sympathy with the basic purpose of the Bill. For many years there has been concern about the export of animals to the Continent for slaughter for food purposes. I particularly remember a very good campaign carried on by The Guardian on the export of horses, and the horrifying stories told about the conditions not only under which they travelled but under which they were received in Continental slaughterhouses and then slaughtered. It is remarkable that the Bill contains a loophole which would enable this practice to continue in the case of ponies.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) produced no evidence that this trade is being carried on. He pointed this out quite fairly. He said that there was just fear and supposition that this might be so. If the purpose of the Bill is to prevent this practice from being carried on it would be far better if it completely prohibited the export of ponies to the Continent, or, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said, put such a high value on the ponies concerned that very few would be exported, except for breeding.

The Bill sets out with an admirable purpose, which it does not fulfil. There are loopholes in it, and I am very surprised that the hon. Member for Gilling-ham (Mr. Burden) did not appreciate and deal with the objections that my hon. Friend put forward. My hon. Friend pointed out that the Order laid to ensure the inspection of ponies is only three weeks old. It is a little premature to bring forward a Bill to do something with which that Order is intended to deal.

The hon. Member claimed that the Bill was supported by animal welfare societies. If those societies are concerned about the situation they ought to ask for much stronger legislation than this. It is said that the Bill would interfere with the trade in ponies. The House is entitled to know what that trade is—where the ponies are sent, what happens to them when they arrive, and who sells them.

I am told that one person who is very much in favour of the Bill is one of our biggest traders in this respect. If the implication is that ponies are being sold for slaughtering this trader would seem to be concerned with that trade. It is only fair to the House that when such a Bill as this is presented much more evidence should be given than the mere fears expressed by hon. Members who have spoken in support of it.

In my submission, the Bill will not do what it sets out to do. There is no doubt that under its provisions many ponies will still be exported, most of which will ultimately be slaughtered. There will still be a trade in ponies for slaughtering on the Continent, and their value when sold will contain an element which takes this fact into account. So the Bill will not do what it sets out to do.

There is, further, the damaging limitation in Clause 4: … This Act shall not extend to Northern Ireland". Why not? No explanation has been given why this limitation should exist. Will there be a possibility of ponies being exported to Northern Ireland and then being re-exported to the Continent? If so, that completely destroys the Bill. I said earlier, when discussing the export of horses—and some years ago the issue was being widely canvassed in the Press and The Guardian was running a campaign on the subject—that the trade came from Ireland. What is to stop the same sort of thing happening with ponies under this Measure?

Mr. Scholefield Allen

If the trade really is profitable, as we believe it to be, would it not pay people dealing in these transactions to send ponies to the Continent via Northern Ireland on a big scale?

Mr. Hamling

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. If it is so profitable, it is obvious that the Bill is not sufficiently strong to control this trade. Or is it possibly that there are some people who want to make the trade even more profitable by fixing these prices? I am aware that this may be an unworthy suggestion, but it might be that, by placing this value on. ponies, profits would be enhanced. The Bill is not a good one. The limitation in Clause 4 completely destroys it. The method adopted would not limit the trade in any way but might well enhance it, make it more profitable and therefore stimulate the export of ponies.

Clause 3(1) states: It shall be an offence for any person to sell or offer for sale any pony as being a pony belonging to one of the native breeds to which this section applies unless such pony is registered in the stud books of such native breed". What does this have to do with exports? What is the purpose of the Clause? Is it, perhaps, intended to make the breeding of ponies more profitable? Is it intended to upgrade the breeds to make people who trade in these ponies spend more?

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Crewe was right when he said that when an hon. Member presents a private Bill he has an obligation to explain clearly the purpose of the Measure. This is, after all, a Second Reading debate. We are entitled to know precisely what the Bill will achieve, and it is not sufficient merely for hon. Gentlemen opposite to deal with one aspect of the Measure but not explain the others. I therefore—

Mr. Kimball rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Speaker

I cannot accept that Motion.

Mr. Hamling

This is basic to the Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] The Measure should be explained in detail and hon. Gentlemen opposite have not done a service to the House by presenting a Bill—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.