HL Deb 22 June 1937 vol 105 cc694-702

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am indeed sensible of the privilege conferred on me in being allowed to move the Second Reading of a measure so little likely to rouse opposition, so greatly calculated to excite sympathy. I hope that, as now amended, this Bill will receive the full support of the Minister of Agriculture. It is designed to prevent the exportation from these shares of horses which, though technically sound, are yet past their best and are either old, or approaching old age—animals of which it might fairly be said that their active working days are drawing to a close. Such animals may be conveniently termed work-worn. There is nothing in the existing law to prevent their exportation.

I have no wish to detain your Lordships by passing in review a number of Statutes dealing with this matter, but some reference to the existing position will be necessary. At present, under the Diseases of Animals Act, 1910, as amended by the Exportation of Horses Act, 1914, it is illegal, except in certain special cases, to export any horse unless a veterinary inspector certifies that it is capable of being conveyed and disembarked without cruelty, and of being worked without suffering. If the horse be in such a state that it is cruel to keep it alive, or if it be permanently incapable of being worked without suffering, the inspector has power to order its destruction, whether the owner consents or not. By an Order passed in 1921 the comfort of the animals in transit was provided for, and these revised regulations are rigidly and fearlessly enforced by all the parties concerned. None the less, they leave much to be desired in that there is nothing to prevent the exportation of the work-worn horse. It is scarcely pleasant to feel that animals of this type, after much faithful service on our behalf, can be sold for a paltry sum for export, either to be butchered on arrival under conditions over which we have no control or to have such scanty remaining reserves of strength as may be left to them ruthlessly exploited by those who in such a case are likely to show neither pity nor compassion.

Let there be no illusion as to that which awaits these horses when exported. Some—and theirs is the more fortunate fate—are, on arrival, slaughtered at the port abattoirs. It is fair to say that the conditions in these abattoirs are, for the most part, equal to those obtaining in our own, but the private slaughter-houses leave much to be desired. Those not so slaughtered are exposed for sale in the markets of France, Holland, and Belgium. The Paris market is under cover, but in the other markets the animals are exposed without protection to every bitter wind that blows in winter and to the full heat of the summer sun. I ought perhaps to add at this point that I am using the word "horse" in the sense in which it is defined by the Acts quoted—that is, as meaning horse, mule, or ass. It would be easy to give many examples, fully verified, of the cruel treatment which the work-worn horse is likely to meet with when exported. I do not propose, however, to speak at length on this point, feeling as I do that many of your Lordships, when on the Continent, must have seen with your own eyes, as I have, the sort of brutal treatment which is so frequently meted out to animals of this type. But perhaps I may be permitted to quote very briefly from Sir Frederick Hobday, head of the Royal Veterinary College, and Major Wall, a veterinary surgeon of wide experience.

These gentlemen visited the Continent together in February last in order to inquire into the conditions at first hand. Sir Frederick Hobday, in a letter to The Times of March 3 last, after describing the pitiable condition in which he had found many horses in the market at Charleroi, goes on to say: Another light horse had a scab under the collar, while yet another had a large sore on both back and shoulders. Several had contracted tendons, and one in particular appeared in great pain … This horse and others were driven away in traps or heavy carts at the end of the market. He concludes: Whatever the laws may be which protect animals, they were 'more evident in the breach than in the observance' … we cannot contemplate without the deepest concern the export of work-worn horses … It must be difficult to find any one whose opinion would carry greater weight than that of Sir Frederick Hobday, and he, at any rate, leaves us in no doubt as to what his views are.

Major Wall, in a report dated the 1st March last, states of horses seen near Brussels that most of them were lame, some … could only hobble from the stable: all were pitiable specimens of emaciation and debility. One horse, quite thirty years of age, lame and emaciated, has been brought out to work as a canal boat horse. Speaking of the general conditions, he states that horses used by big firms and large farmers were in good condition. That, of course, I gladly accept. But he adds: Those of the peasant, the dealer in cheap animals for slaughter were often in such a deplorable state"—


May I ask the noble Lord if the horses to which he referred would be horses exported from this country, or horses ordinarily working in other countries?


I am much obliged to the noble Lord for asking that. I want to make this point clear. The horses which are referred to by both gentlemen, as both gentlemen I think made quite clear, are the horses exposed for sale in those market places. They may have been English, they may have been German, they may have been Belgian horses. Major Wall describes their general condition. All I am seeking to show is, not what happened to any one individual horse, but the sort of fate that may overtake these unfortunate animals when they are exported. He concludes by saying that "without personal experience … one could not appreciate the horror of it." These are strong words for one who from the very nature of his profession is in such close and continuous contact with pain and suffering in animals that he is not likely to exaggerate their condition.

One solution which suggests itself is the substitution of a trade in carcases for that in living animals. This point was particularly stressed by the Departmental Committee appointed in 1925 to inquire into the conditions governing the export trade in horses. Your Lordships, I am happy to say, will have the advantage of hearing the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, who was a member of this Committee, and whose knowledge of the whole subject is obviously far greater than my own. In the aggregate the number of carcases exported has increased greatly during the past fifteen years, but some countries, Holland in particular, prefer their meat in the freshest form. Even if it were possible by refrigeration or other methods to induce the Dutch to accept their horse flesh in the form of carcases, there would still be no certainty that some work-worn horses might not be exported, nor could there be any guarantee, if this traffic in live horses were stopped, that it might not again revive. The only solution would appear to be a measure designed, as is the present Bill, to prohibit absolutely the traffic in work-worn animals without, in any way, interfering with legitimate trade in young or valuable horses.

This Bill imposes two tests, which, it is important to remember, must be taken in conjunction with each other. It forbids the export of any horse which is over eight years old and, at the same time, under £25 in value in the case of a heavy draught horse, and under £20 in value in the case of a vanner, mule or jennet. There seems to have been some doubt as to the meaning of jennet, and on inquiry I was advised that it was the converse of a mule. By this I understand it to be, and I have verified the fact, the result of the mating of a stallion with a donkey mare. The value is fixed at £3 in the case of asses, and an exception is made for circus horses and certain other animals. Although these conditions have been fixed after much careful thought and discussion, it would be unreasonable to expect complete agreement in regard to them. Eight years was chosen as the age because up to this point a horse's age may be told with certainty. After that it becomes increasingly more difficult, and although it can be told, it can only be given to the nearest year. The difficulty varies, I believe, from horse to horse.

The valuation would be made by the veterinary inspectors at the ports. Now it is not an easy matter to assess the value of a horse, but it is not difficult to give an honest opinion on the subject, which is all that the inspectors will be called upon to do. Some criticism has been directed against these values on the ground that they are too low, but it must be borne in mind that, to the purchase price of a horse, must be added a further £3 or £4 for the cost of transport. To fix these values any higher at the present moment, therefore, might be to endanger legitimate trade in valuable working animals; to fix them any lower would be to jeopardise the very purpose of this Bill. There is, moreover, a safeguard in that the Minister of Agriculture has power to alter these values either upward or downward as circumstances may direct, and this I consider a point of some importance. There is also a provision in the Bill that if, in the opinion of a veterinary inspector, an animal is permanently incapable of being worked without suffering, he is no longer to have any option in the matter: he is compelled to order its destruction, and in such case no compensation is payable to the owner. Your Lordships doubtless will feel that this is a valuable addition to the law as it now stands.

Some criticism has been directed against this measure in another place on the ground that traffic in work-worn horses has declined, and that there is, in fact, no evil to remedy. It is true that our export of horses of all classes has declined in common with many other of our exports during the last few years, but this is largely due to the difficulties of international trade. A further factor has been the high price which carcases are fetching on this side. Neither of these factors is permanent. It is only reasonable to suppose that when international trade relationships are resumed with normal freedom this traffic may again revive. There is, I believe, a substantial volume of public opinion behind this Bill, but it is not only in this country that the fate of the Bill is eagerly awaited. It has many supporters abroad, who feel that if it becomes law the hands of all horse-lovers on the Continent would be strengthened, whether they seek for further legislation in defence of the horse or whether they press for the just enforcement of the existing law.

I have endeavoured to present this matter both with reason and with restraint. I am conscious that in so doing the earnestness of my convictions may have been left in doubt. I can but say that even if this Bill were to prohibit the export of only one work-worn horse, if indeed this traffic did not now exist but there were merely a risk that it might again spring up, I would still urge your Lordships to support this measure with all the force and all the vigour I could command. It may seem to your Lordships with some reason that this is a small measure with which to detain your Lordships' House when there are many matters of great domestic importance which could be debated and when international affairs still give cause for anxiety. I am reluctant to accept that view. I even hope that measures such as this, in promoting a kindlier relationship between man and beast, may sow the seeds from which in time a more humane conception of what is due from man to man may develop in the human race.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Buckmaster.)


My Lords, the subject has been so widely covered by the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, that I feel I have not a great deal to add to which he has said. My reason for intervening in this debate is that I was a member of the Committee which was appointed in 1925 to inquire into the whole question of the export of British horses to the Continent. Consequently I was able to get a very close insight into the whole question and into the conditions under which the traffic was carried on. The Committee's inquiry was a very thorough and exhaustive one. Not only was a great deal of evidence produced before the Committee, but the members made it their business to get first hand knowledge of the conditions prevailing. We went down to the docks at Leith, Hull, Goole and London, which are the only ports from which horses are exported, to see the inspection and the embarkation of the horses. We went disguised so that the authorities would not know who we were and would not be prepared for us. I remember that on one occasion my disguise was so complete, or perhaps not complete enough, that I was seized and hurried into an office where, being mistaken for a shipping clerk, I was asked to hurry up and sign some documents in connection with the embarkation of the horses. My point is that the authorities did not know we were coming and were not prepared for us. They were not aware that we were doing our very best to catch them out in some negligence of their duty. I may say that in that we failed utterly. We travelled with the horses to the Continent, we saw them disembarked, we saw them in the market, and finally we saw them slaughtered.

Two points, I think, impressed themselves especially on the minds of the members of that Committee. The first was that the cruelty which was alleged both by certain societies and by certain sections of the Press to be associated with this traffic was grossly exaggerated, and the second was that, as I have already indicated, the Ministry's inspectors carry out their duties conscientiously and well. But in spite of this, as the law stood then and as it stands now, there still remains a loophole by which the partially worn-out horse which still has work left in him can pass the test and can therefore be shipped to the Continent, where he can be bought by a man on the lookout for a cheap horse and can be worked under cruel conditions, possibly for several years, before he is finally slaughtered. Remember, my Lords, that once these horses have set foot on the Continent we, over here, can control their future fate no longer. So I welcome this measure as being one which will still further tighten up the regulations and make that loophole of which I have just spoken still smaller. I welcome especially the provision which makes it compulsory for an inspector when he has rejected a horse to destroy it on the spot, if he considers that it is cruel to keep it alive or that it is incapable of being worked permanently without suffering. Up to now there have been frequent cases when horses have been rejected at the ports and taken back to work again on the streets. I heard of one case where a horse brought up three times to the inspector and three times rejected, was put back into harness and driven away with the cart. That is the case of a horse that should have been destroyed on the spot.

If the Ministry's inspectors carry out the new duties which this Bill will impose upon them as conscientiously as they have carried out their old duties in the past, I am sure that suffering and cruelty, at any rate on this side, will be practically eliminated. We as a nation are notoriously fond of, and kind to, animals, but it will always remain a reproach to us as long as there remains any avoidable suffering connected with the export of horses. With these few remarks I wish to give the Bill my very warm support, and I can only hope that it will have a smoother passage than some members of the Departmental Committee had when they crossed the North Sea to Rotterdam.


My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, who moved the Second Reading of this Bill, and the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, who spoke in support of it, have informed your Lordships of the provisions of the Bill. Its main purpose is to prevent the exportation of certain classes of horses to the Continent for slaughter. It only remains for me to say that the Government are of opinion that this Bill in its present form suitably rounds off the provisions of the existing law, and that consequently it deserves the support of your Lordships. I would therefore express the hope that your Lordships will see fit to give this measure a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.