HL Deb 14 December 1977 vol 387 cc2194-217

6.38 p.m.

Lord HOUGHTON of SOWERBY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the growing volume of horsemeat trade with EEC countries and the unacceptable aspects of treating horses as food animals. The noble Lord said: My Lords I beg to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I apologise for imposing myself again upon your Lordships' patience. Two speeches in one afternoon are not due to any malice aforethought on my part. It is purely coincidental that the two debates came close together. I can offer your Lordships this comfort: that you will not be hearing from me again until after January 17th.

In my original Unstarred Question, I did spell out in more detail what my purpose was in raising this matter; but I was advised that I could enlarge, within reason, upon the underlying purposes of my Unstarred Question and deal with it in the normal way. I ought to say before going further that I understand that the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, is going to make his début as a Front Bench spokesman on the Benches opposite in this debate and I welcome him to this subject. We are all aware of his considerable abilities in many other directions, and it is a welcome feature of this debate that he is going to join in the discussion.

I am sure that your Lordships have noticed that recently I have been asking many questions seeking information about what is happening to horses and, in particular, the trade in carcase meat to the European Economic Community countries. I find that the Government are surprisingly short on information about horses, and that may account for what is, I think, undue complacency on the part of the Government in the present situation. I ask a few rhetorical questions: how much do we know about our horse population? What do we know about its numbers and whether the numbers are rising or falling? Do we know whether there is a surplus of horses over the uses that we have for them? If so, what has brought this about, and what is being done about it? Is there any evidence of a new industry for the production of horsemeat for human consumption here or abroad or for pet food manufacture? In other words, are horses now being bred for slaughter? Are foals being produced for the continental delicacy which I have heard described as "foal veal"? What do we know of the facts about all this? The answer is, "Very little".

We know far less about horses than we do about cattle and sheep because horses are not farm animals. We also appear to give them considerably less protection. In asking this question, I am particularly concerned with the export traffic of carcase horsemeat of mares, foals, horses of all ages—many of whom were of very high quality and in the prime of life—to European countries. There is no information about the total number of horses being slaughtered either generally or in particular for the European trade, nor do we know how many horses are going through sales and auctions. All we know for certain is the weight and not the numbers of horse carcase meat being exported to EEC countries. This information becomes available because only four slaughterhouses—all in England—are licensed to kill horses for export of their meat to Europe: Huddersfield, Norwich, Bristol and Crawley, Sussex.

We also know of the growth in the trade. In the nine months January to September 1975 just about 1,000 tonnes were exported —"tonnes" being the decimal weight. In the corresponding period of 1976 this number has risen from 1,000 tonnes to just short of 2,900 tonnes, and in 1977 the figures for the same period have risen to 4,216 tonnes. That is a four-fold increase in two years. I estimate that on an annual basis our output from these four slaughterhouses is now approximately 5,500 tonnes in the year. A "tonne" is just short of a "ton".

I cannot convert this weight into carcases. Whether 5,500 tonnes represents 10,000 horses or what number obviously depends upon their size and weight, and I cannot give the answer. I am told that one of these four slaughterhouses alone kills 400 horses a week, but I cannot vouch for that figure. What we do know, as the figures illustrate, is that the traffic is increasing, and I understand that one of these licensed slaughterhouses is now busy building an extension for anticipated increased trade.

There are various aspects of this trade and one of them is the transportation of horses to the four licensed slaughterhouses. Just recently it came to my notice that the Secretary of State for Scotland was about to dispose of the Highland Pony Stud of the Department of Agriculture and Food for Scotland at Beechwood Farm, Inverness. Included in the auction (which had already been advertised) were 20 brood mares, 17 foals, 12 yearlings, nine two to three year old ponies and about eight stallions. I beseeched the Secretary of State to pay regard to the possible consequences of selling that stud, which was to be auctioned yesterday, 13th December. Where would it go? Who would buy it? What would be the destination of this highly prized stud? The nearest slaughterhouse they could have gone to for meat for export to Europe would have been Huddersfield.

But, of course, the Scottish horses do not necessarily go to Huddersfield; they certainly cannot go to any place in Scotland; they may even go to Crawley. Horses are being taken from Wales to Norwich, and from East Anglia to Bristol. They are not catchment areas; they are authorised slaughterhouses. What goes there depends on who buys them and where they go for slaughter. I am glad to report to your Lordships the speed with which the Secretary of State for Scotland decided to cancel this auction. I want to express my warm gratitude to him for such a swift response. That is not something one usually gets from Ministers. When they have decided on a course of action, they can usually find plenty of reasons for going on with it. Here was a swift cancellation of this auction and his assurance that he was going to consider alternative arrangements for the sale of the animals in the stud.

Of course, normally we would not be unduly worried about putting a stud of that quality up for auction, and we would not think that the slaughtermen would be almost the only buyers; but now the price of horses for horsemeat, at £30 and £40, and even more, per live hundredweight is higher than the price that will be obtained for a horse for a riding school or for other uses. There is something wrong when there is not a single authorised slaughterhouse in Scotland, or Wales and there are only four for the rest of the country.

Regarding the sales of horses, the regulations which apply to markets and auctions of farm animals do not apply to horses. It is possible to sell horses anywhere, and there are many auctions that are being held—some regularly and some at intervals—in very unsatisfactory conditions. I have a list of 10 or 11 places where auctions of horses are being held and about which I have received strong criticisms from observers of the conditions.

I supplied the Minister with this list. I am not going to read it out. That would not be fair: there is nobody here to reply to accusations of unsatisfactory conditions. But I mention the fact that a list of this length has come to me from responsible observers giving the conditions in which horses, ponies and foals are being auctioned in different parts of the country. Auctions and sales can be held in warehouses and barns late at night, with horses being boxed up and transported in the middle of the night under conditions which would not be tolerated in a cattle market or other auction sale. I hope that the Government will consider applying to horse sales and auctions the regulations which apply to the sale of cattle and other farm animals. I understand this means an order under the Diseases of Animals Act 1950, Section 20 of which enables the Government to make regulations of the kind that I think are needed. I think something else needs to be said: the growth of this traffic has been so swift that a good deal of improvisation has been necessary to deal with it and, therefore, a good many of the transport vehicles are quite unsatisfactory.

I have a lot of evidence here from observers of the conditions in which animals are arriving at the place of slaughter. In many cases the trucks have no tailboards and they are rickety. In one case, there was a prosecution because of jagged metal edges inside the container where animals were crowded together for a very long journey. Some prosecutions have taken place. I have many Press cuttings here, but I will only quote the references: the Horse and Hound magazine for 19th August, the Nottingham Evening Post for 27th August, the Middlesbrough Gazette for 19th, 20th and 22nd September and the Daily Telegraph's account of the notorious case of the transporter convicted at Diss in Norfolk last February.

The stories of overcrowding are numerous; heavy and light horses are crammed together. Injury and death on the way to slaughter is almost commonplace. Transport vehicles with no ramp are used so that the exhausted animals have to jump or fall out. Some have already suffered injury on the way and they come tumbling out with broken legs. Then they await slaughter, again in conditions which give rise to very strong criticism from those who see them. There are exposed paddocks which in this weather have become nothing but mud and slime. I am informed by the Minister that these four slaughterhouses were all inspected as recently as last month, but I also understand—though not from the Minister—that the inspecting veterinary officers do not regard the paddocks in which the horses are kept while they await slaughter as part of the slaughterhouse which it is their duty to inspect. The animals in such conditions, if protected at all, are protected under the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which is the general Act dealing with unnecessary cruelty to animals.

I think that some action is called for immediately, and I will not dwell longer than I need just to summarise my conclusions. I do not want to harrow the feelings of the House or of the people who read the report of this debate by detailing a great deal of the evidence that is available. All I can say is that if the Minister feels these animals are not at particular risk he does not know what is happening—and it is about time that somebody found out. First, I suggest that we need urgently the order I have referred to under the Diseases of Animals Act 1950, where the Minister can prohibit or regulate the holding of markets, fairs and sales of horses. The Minister says he is considering doing so. I am glad to hear that, and I hope he will not consider for much longer but act upon what I am sure he must feel to be his duty.

Secondly, we need much greater supervision of the conditions and the distances of transport. I think we ought to know what distances the horses are having to travel to these four slaughterhouses for European carcase meat. Where do they all come from and under what conditions do they await slaughter? I have serious criticisms here of one of the four. Again, I shall not mention the name, but I am told that 70, 80, 100 horses in exposed paddocks of mud, wet and cold, are left for days in conditions which cause distress to the animals and acute distress to the people who pass by and sec what is happening.

Do horses really have to be brought from Scotland to England to go as meat to Europe? The Transit of Animals Order 1975 is evidently no adequate safeguard— and here may I say in parenthesis that it is not fair to leave the policing of Acts of Parliament to voluntary bodies. Why should the RSPCA have to rely on voluntary help to do what it is the duty of Government inspectors and Government agencies to do? The law against cruelty is the law of the land, and its enforcement is the responsibility of Government. For far too long has an organisation like the RSPCA been regarded as a national institution and a kind of adjunct to Government, when in fact it is purely a voluntary organisation and does not receive a penny piece of Government money. Thirdly, I think that we need legislation to deal comprehensively with horses and their welfare. The Horses and Ponies Protection Association have compiled a draft Bill and recently various voluntary bodies have come together as the National Joint Equine Welfare Committee. They, too, have produced a draft Bill for consideration of Ministers.

The history of England could be written on the back of a horse. We are supposed to love our horses. As I said yesterday about sheep, we are fond of them; we bestow affection upon them and we try to care for them as long as they are with us. But, when the lorry goes off from the farm or the stables, it is a very different story in the last few days or weeks of their lives.

Finally, I think we need to look ahead as quickly as we can. I would ask: what is the future of this traffic in horses? Should we not know whether it is really a surplus which is being killed off or whether we are beginning the breeding of horses and foals for the meat trade or the pet food trade? Are we still reducing a surplus? If so, when is it likely to end? Are we beginning on some new industry of breeding our horses for the continental table? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of the points I have put to him because, as he knows, I have in customary courtesy given him a preview of the points that I was proposing to raise. I apologise for keeping the House so long, but this is a subject which I believe to be so close to our heritage and history and to our emotional response to animal life in this country that it is not too much to ask your Lordships' House to spend a little time on it even on the eve of Christmas.

7 p.m.


My Lords, I feel doubly bogus in speaking from this Dispatch Box on the Unstarred Question which was raised with such vigour by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, because I am probably the most inexpert of your Lordships on the subject of horses, and also because, since I originally communicated with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I was parachuted on to this Bench and into speaking from it the day before yesterday, at rather short notice. So that his kind words were well received by me, but were undeserved.

There are very few subjects which disturb the British people more deeply than the unnecessary suffering of animals. Suffering of animals will always worry us, but unnecessary suffering even more so. Indeed, we constantly astonish our Continental colleagues and neighbours, and partners in the EEC, by our concern for the suffering of animals, and what I shall try to do tonight—and it is a difficult task—is to strike a reasonable balance between common sense and compassion.

I am fully aware of the dangers of trying to steer such a course. My daughter has a pony—and I am sure that she will study what I have to say tonight—and, at the last count, the animal members of my family included four rabbits, three ducks, a cat, a dog and a pigeon which arrived shortly before Christmas with a broken wing. I am sure that all of them will have me up before the Race Relations Board or the Equal Opportunities Commission should I appear to be discriminating against them in any way. In more serious vein, I want to examine these problems in a level-headed way and I shall try to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in his extremely powerful speech, which it is very hard for any Member of your Lordships' House to follow, has made a formidable case and I do not envy the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who is to reply, in his task, even if he did have warning of the questions which were to be fired at him. I want to limit my remarks to a few of the many issues which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, raised. But perhaps I can say this first. I take it that the noble Lord does not feel that we in this country can tell other nations what they should eat, or when or how. We cannot explain to the Belgians our views on horses, nor can we expect the Japanese to change their dietary habits because we have some objection to the consumption of horses. I believe that what lies behind the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is a desire to control this trade, in so far as it is possible in a reasonable manner to prevent unnecessary suffering.

We have to follow the horses in their journeys from the field to the auction, from the auction to the slaughterhouse, and look at the chain of journeys that they will go through before they are finally turned into meat for human food or for dog food. Therefore, my first question to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, is this. I understand that there was an internal review inside the Department. What has happened to it? Has it been completed? What did it cover? Will its results be published, and when will we see those results? I understand from a memorandum which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food issued in April 1977, that the Government consider the four Acts which cover the welfare of horses and ponies—I shall not specify them, because they will be well known to the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government—to be sufficient. Is that still the Government's view; and, if the Acts themselves are sufficient, are they being enforced sufficiently thoroughly, or could there be some improvement? What I am really asking is whether Her Majesty's Government still adhere to the view that they expressed in public in April this year, that the controls and safeguards over the transport of horses to slaughterhouses, and in slaughterhouses, were sufficient. Has there been any change since then?

It may be irrelevant at first sight, or at first hearing, to talk about the cost of animal feedstuffs, but this is something that we need to bear in mind when we are trying to find the underlying reasons behind the increase in the number of horses and ponies that have been slaughtered. Grazing can often cost £60 or £70 an acre per year, and farmers and others do not like letting grazing for use by horses or ponies because of the poaching of the soil that occurs. Again, a bale of hay can sometimes cost £2, and it has cost as much as that in recent years. Thus many of those people who have now found themselves well off enough to afford to buy a pony do so without realising the cost that they may be incurring. Later on, when times get hard, ponies are neglected because the cost of feed is too high. I wonder whether the Government have given any thought to the possibility of ensuring that those who buy ponies understand fully the cost of what it is they are buying for their child.

What should be done about the present situation? I wonder whether the Government have considered the situation from the European angle. There is, I understand, a European Convention for the protection of animals during international transport, to which we have now adhered. Do the Government think that this is satisfactory? Is it enough, or do they feel that the European Economic Community itself should have a look at the problem, so that there are uniform standards throughout the Community?

Another point which I should like to put before your Lordships is this. I think that we must stop and wonder why this trade is so lucrative, because there is an economic justification for the very considerable increase in the trade to which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has referred. Part of the reason is the shortage of horses on the continent, where, of course, they breed horses to eat; and there is a huge trade from East European countries to the EEC. But, partly, it is the decline in the value of the pound which has made British horsemeat worth exporting and worth buying for those involved in the trade overseas. So that, unless the pound continues to decline at the speed with which it has declined in recent years, there is no reason necessarily to believe that the increase in the volume of the trade will continue in the proportions in which it has increased in recent years—and those proportions are considerable. The figures that I have—and I am using Continental tonnes—are these: 1975, 1,403—that is, tonnes of horsemeat exported to the Continent; 1976, 4,579, and 1977, January to October, 6,026. There is a very considerable increase in the trade, and I think that your Lordships will see some correlation between the increase and the slide in the value of the pound.

There is also the question of the export of live horses for breeding, racing or similar purposes. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, whether the Government still believe what they said in their memorandum dated April, 1977. In paragraph 5 of that memorandum they stated confidently: Rumours that horses or ponies are being exported for slaughter circulate from time to time, but careful inquiries by Ministry officials and by the RSPCA have failed to substantiate any of them. May I ask the noble Lord whether that is still the case?

I have not tried to compete with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in his eloquent portrayal of the more heartrending aspects of the trade which he has described to your Lordships. What I have tried to do is to look at one or two of the underlying reasons for the increase in the trade and to ask the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, whether the Government are satisfied with the existing controls. If they are not satisfied with them, are they dissatisfied with the controls themselves or with the way in which they are being enforced?

I shall not detain your Lordships any longer. This is an interesting and important debate and I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for having asked this Unstarred Question, even though it is rather a gloomy and depressing subject to be considering just before Christmas.

7.12 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, confined his speech entirely to the carcase trade. I wish to speak about the trade of horsemeat on the hoof, which my information suggests may well be continuing, even though only with the use of a certain amount of deception. I hope that I am wrong. I imagine that we in this House would be unanimous in our view that the export of horsemeat on the hoof is an undesirable trade. I should like to suggest, however, that the export of horsemeat on the hoof is not necessarily the most undesirable of these trades. There is another one, called trade in spent hens, which I find even more revolting. If a battery hen ends up in an overcrowded crate to be sent across the North Sea for slaughter, Heaven knows where, it seems to me to degrade even more the people who indulge in the trade than those who indulge in the export of horses.

Why is there a trade in horsemeat? Any economist would tell your Lordships that there must be a demand and a supply. The demand exists on the Continent. As the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, also said, it would be a great mistake for us to deplore the fact that people eat horses. They have as much right to eat horse as I have to eat beef or mutton; ethically, I can see no distinction between the two. However, this demand on the Continent is beyond our control.

Why is there also a supply, without which the trade would not exist? We have a national surplus of horses and ponies and I should like to suggest two reasons why this may be so. The first is the normal trade cycle. A few years ago we used to hear a great deal about the pig cycle, and I believe that there has been a pony cycle. A few years ago you could sell, at good prices, almost anything which looked remotely equine. Many people bred from mares which, viewed objectively, were quite unfit to cover. Partly, therefore, I believe this to be a normal economic cycle.

The point that the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, made about the pound is obviously valid, but perhaps what is most under our control and has led to our current pony surplus is indiscriminate breeding. In the last few years there have been many new horse and pony owners who have had more enthusiasm than experience. All too often one finds that one can cope with a mare which somebody else has broken and trained. Then one rashly allows the mare to foal and the foal is born with a surprising amount of its feral nature still there, with which one cannot cope; so there is a surplus pony. Normally this surplus would be absorbed by the vast and voracious pet food industry. Although they advertise a great deal, the manufacturers of these pet foods do not advertise that what they are doing is recycling Dobbin to feed Fido. However, that is what they are doing to a very large extent.

The new factor is that a better price can be obtained for meat for human consumption. Despite the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, I should have no great objection to the export of horsemeat in carcase form, provided, of course, that his objections to the treatment of the animals before slaughter had been met. I am entirely in sympathy with those remarks of the noble Lord.

The reason why more horsemeat cannot be exported in carcase form is because, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has told us, we have only four export-approved slaughterhouses. This suggests the action that we should take. First, surely we should discourage indiscriminate breeding. I believe that the Pony Club is already doing its best to discourage this, and also the breed societies. If the Government could do anything to discourage indiscriminate breeding, I am sure that they would be well advised to do so.

Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, will agree with me that we should upgrade more of our slaughterhouses. Certainly there seems to be a great need for a slaughterhouse in Scotland. If we could upgrade more of our slaughterhouses to conform to EEC export standards, then at least the live trade could be controlled and stopped while the trade in carcase meat could be carried on in a more humane manner.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, may I heartily support the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in everything that he has said. The horse holds a peculiarly special place in the hearts of the people of our country. It has never been developed as a food animal. However, due to the changing times, economically it is now becoming a very valuable animal for food purposes. When one hears about the import of EEC labour, one begins to wonder whether we are developing any form of horsemeat trade in this country. It would be very interesting to know how much of the slaughterhouse horsemeat is sold for human consumption in this country, quite apart from the amount which is sold for pet food. If this trade develops, one will get into a situation where one begins to think of the intensive breeding of calves and pigs and chickens which, when associated with a horse becomes a most undesirable factor, even though it may be viable economically.

I should also like to join the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in what amounted almost to a denunciation of the fact of having voluntary bodies policing Acts of Parliament. It is most undesirable and I would take issue not only with noble Lords now sitting on the Government Benches but certainly also with my noble friends (who I hope will one day be sitting on the Front Bench opposite) if they do not take steps to see that Acts of Parliament are actually enforced by the Government in power and not by a body which is supported by voluntary contributions.

One does not want to risk the future of the horse. I am perfectly in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord McNair: we are starting to get overbreeding of horses. Always when we begin to get a rise in economic promise in an animal we get overbreeding. As I have said earlier today, we have had it in dogs; we now appear to have it in horses and I would implore the breeders of horses not to go on with this overbreeding, with all the disastrous results which may flow from it.

When we look to the future—which most of us will not see—we are arriving at a crisis of energy. I foresee, and I hope the breeders of good working horses will note it, that there will be a basis of breeding stock which, if energy becomes scarce, will enable us to go back to the use of the animal which gave great service for movement throughout our agricultural land, which I can remember well when I was a small boy, by transporting us from place to place. I would implore breeders of good stock not to dilute that stock purely for economic gain.

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for asking this Unstarred Question and to say that I completely agree with everything he said. I have an interest to declare as I am President of the Ponies of Britain, and I have had a lifelong association with horses from about the age of three. I have ridden horses of all forms, sizes and shapes and I have ridden them in various sports, so I do declare an interest in the horse.

I do not quite agree with everything that has been said by some of my noble friends. I cannot quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, when he said that there was a great danger of overbreeding of horses as there had been with dogs. Since a mare takes 11 months to have foal, whereas a bitch can have two or even three litters in a year, I really do not think there is much danger there. However there is a danger of breeding sub-standard stock.

As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said in asking his Question, the horsemeat trade is an unacceptable trade. Many people may ask, why? We have heard some of the reasons explained tonight. We export and slaughter hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep and people may well say if we do it to cattle why not do it to horses. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, pointed out, the horse auctions are not protected under regulations as are the auctions for farm livestock. Also I should like to make the point that the horse, varying of course with the particular breeds, is a very highly strung animal.

My noble friend Lord O'Hagan gave some figures for horsemeat. I think he said up to the early part of this year—perhaps my noble friend could repeat them.


My Lords, the figures I have are for January to October of this year, 6,026 tonnes.


My Lords, I did not have those figures but I have the figures for last year when, apparently, the export trebled and the figures are 4,500 tons worth £3 million, amounting to 28,000 horses or ponies. Of course the law lays down quite strict standards of welfare for the transit of horses in the United Kingdom and we have the Balfour assurances if they go overseas, which cover all livestock. But the trouble is that the law regarding transit is not adhered to in every case.

I should like to quote here shortly from the Yorkshire Post regarding a large auction near Harrogate at a place called Pannal. It says here: there was ample evidence that the manner in which some horses and ponies were driven to auction at Pannal, near Harrogate, on Saturday did not begin to measure up to the most basic legal requirements. The Diseases of Animals Act 1975 specifies that horses must be transported in vehicles with roofs, inspection doors and ramps. The police and the Ministry of Agriculture's transport inspectors could have secured at least three straightforward prosecutions on these points alone at Pannal". That shows what many of us have been pointing out for some time, that, I regret to say, the Ministry's inspectors do not always do their job. I realise that it is very difficult for the police because they are over-stretched.

I must speak shortly about ponies, being President of the Ponies of Britain. We have the minimum values for ponies, the object being that they shall not be exported on the hoof for slaughter. These values were raised again in July 1973. The figures are now £160 for ponies over 12 hands but not exceeding 14.2 hands; it is £120 for ponies under 12 hands and £60 for Shetland ponies not exceeding 10.2 hands. But the poor horse over 14.2 hands has no protection at all. The only protection it has, which is complete nonsense, is that it must be fit for riding or breeding. Any horse, providing it can actually stand up and walk, can pass as fit for riding and any mare, certainly if she is under 25—and I have known them breed over that age—can be fit for breeding.

As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, pointed out, the real answer is to have far more slaughterhouses equally distributed about the country, in England, wales and Scotland, and so not necessitate these very long journeys in overcrowded and uncomfortable conditions. I was under the impression that we had one slaughterhouse in Scotland for equines, but apparently I was wrong. I know we have four in England for horses, and I thought we had one in Scotland, too. I have seen at some of these auctions, which, as the noble Lord said, are held anywhere, cases of great cruelty. You have foals which are not weaned. They are driven into these corrals, and have been separated from the mare, having never drunk from a bucket. A lot of these Welsh ponies and ponies off the fells in Cumbria come in for a very rough time at these horse auctions. I am quite certain that a lot of people on the fells, on the moors, are in fact breeding them for slaughter; they are not breeding them for any other purpose.

The Transit of Animals Act definitely needs far stricter control, and that may also in some instances apply to other livestock, too. We have a large trade going through Stranraer to Ulster. Where those horses and ponies end up I do not know. I suppose some go to the Republic, and the Ministry of Agriculture in the Republic say that none of these horses go abroad on the hoof for slaughter, just as our Ministry of Agriculture do. Certainly regarding our Ministry of Agriculture I have my doubts about that, particularly in regard to horses over 14.2 hands. I am quite certain that hundreds, if not thousands, go for slaughter on the hoof.

To cause the least distress possible some things are essential, and one or two of them have been mentioned. To do away with the necessity for these long journeys we must have more slaughterhouses. I cannot see why we cannot do away with auctions for horses to be slaughtered. The owner or carrier could take them direct to the slaughterhouse, where they would be graded according to their quality, as are fat cattle or sheep. You do not need to have them auctioned if they are going for slaughter; I cannot see the necessity for that. They could go straight to the abattoir and get a guaranteed price per cwt. according to their grade, as is done with cattle and lambs and sheep.

It is very distressing for unbroken horses from the hills to be driven into a ring; some are terrified. Quite a rough crowd of men surrounds them; I am not being uncomplimentary, but I would call some of them louts. They crowd into the ring. The horse ought to be inspected outside, in a paddock. They men all crowd round, and some of the animals are absolutely terrified. That is quite unnecessary. No animal—including us, of course—and certainly no horse, enjoys being taken out of its environment, driven into a lorry and bumped around the countryside for 100, 200 or 300 miles, perhaps kept waiting at an auction mart over the weekend to go to some other destination, or waiting in the docks. That is definitely cruel.

I would like Her Majesty's Government go exert greater control over these transit regulations, to have more inspectors, or to wake up the existing inspectors. I would also hope that we could do something about horses over 14.2, because I am quite sure that a great number go abroad on the hoof to be slaughtered. The regulations stipulate for riding or breeding, but that is an absurd regulation because it is wide open. As one or two noble Lords have said, the horse has served us very well through countless generations. Up to a short time ago it was our sole means of transport. It has won many of our battles in war. It is the most magnificent animal. If we cannot see that the old and the weak and the sub-standard young of the equine breed are treated with some consideration, I think we have failed in our duty. I impress upon Her Majesty's Government to take this debate seriously.

7.36 p.m.


My Lords, I think we must be very grateful to my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby for giving us the opportunity this afternoon to discuss the welfare of horses. I would like to thank him for letting me have the points he was going to raise in advance. I think we are all agreed that his speech has moved us very much. Any suggestion of mistreatment of animals of course arouses great concern among the public, and rightly so. Since the horse occupies a special place in our affections, as the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, said, it is right that we should take particular care to ensure the humane treatment of horses in all circumstances.

But, my Lords, much as we should like to see horses and ponies allowed to live their full life-span, and eventually put down only when they become infirm, we must recognise that this is just not practicable. The simple fact is that the supply of these animals exceeds the demand for them for recreational purposes. It would not be right, I think, to suggest, as has been suggested, that ponies are deliberately reared as food animals, but over-supply results from the natural increase in the pony population on Dartmoor, in the New Forest and on the Welsh mountains.

As the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, rightly said—and I would like to congratulate him on making his debut on the Opposition Front Bench—the expense of keeping ponies and horses for riding, particularly the cost of feed, over the past three or four years has risen threefold. This also means, of course, that increasing numbers have to be sold by their owners. I believe it now costs about £500 a year to keep a horse at home, and £1,000 a year boarding. For the same reason, of course—and this was mentioned in the debate—the demand for the purpose of riding has declined. Thus, although prices are low, or relatively low, there is no recreational demand for many of the animals offered for sale.

What, then, is to become of these surplus horses and ponies? Ponies cannot be left to starve or to live in semi-starvation on the moors when their numbers increase beyond the grazing capacity of the area. It is not in the interest of animals used for riding to be kept on if their owners cannot afford to keep them. I think that all who are genuinely concerned with animal welfare accept the hard fact that when a domestic animal is no longer wanted by its present owner, and there is no other would-be owner willing to take charge of it, which, of course, is the best solution, the kindest course is for the animal to be put down humanely. That sadly has been the situation for many horses and ponies in recent years.

When a horse has been slaughtered its carcase can be put to several uses. Exports of horsemeat have significantly increased in recent times, as my noble friend, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said. There has always been some demand for horsemeat for human consumption, even within the United Kingdom where many people have an aversion to eating horse flesh. However, such an aversion on the part of some would seem to be no good reason for prohibiting the sale of horsemeat for human consumption. I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNair, that ethically there is probably very little distinction, although I personally do not like eating it myself.

While I respect people's sensibilities, I am bound to wonder how it would benefit the animal or its former owner if the use of the animal's carcase were restricted to the manufacture of pet food or of inedible products. Surely from the animal welfare standpoint the prime objective is to ensure that animals are well treated while they are alive, and that when slaughter is necessary it is carried out in a humane fashion. That is the object of the present legislation.

Under the Protection of Animal Acts 1911 to 1964—there have been several—and the Protection of Animals (Scotland) Acts, from 1912 to 1964, it is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal in any circumstances, including transit and slaughter. The Criminal Law Act 1977 substantially increased maximum penalties under these welfare Acts. The penalties are now up to a £500 fine and/or up to six months' imprisonment. This legislation is widely used by the local authorities, the police and the animal welfare societies as a means of ensuring the proper treatment of horses and ponies.

There were 655 prosecutions and 593 convictions for offences against the Act last year, which I think illustrates that these Acts are at least working effectively, although possibly there are things that we can do to strengthen and improve conditions and I shall come to that later.

During transit the welfare of horses is also protected by the Transit of Animals (Road and Rail) Order 1975—also during the time of this Government—which lays down detailed requirements for the construction and maintenance of road vehicles used for transporting animals and also regulates the conditions under which they are loaded, unloaded and conveyed. These require that animals in transit should be fed and watered at intervals of not more than 12 hours. When the animals arrive at an abattoir or a knacker's yard they are protected by the Slaughterhouses Act 1974 and the Slaughter of Animals (Prevention of Cruelty) Regulations 1958. There are a number of special provisions in this legislation to safeguard the welfare of horses. These provisions, of course, derive from two Committees of Inquiry in the early 1950s—both of them chaired by distinguished Members of your Lordships' House. There was the Departmental Committee on Export and Slaughter of Horses chaired by the late Lord Rosebery and the Committee of Inquiry into the Slaughter of Horses chaired by the noble Duke, the Duke of Northumberland.

Both of those inquiries made a thorough study of conditions at slaughterhouses and slaughter methods. They put forward a series of detailed recommendations for strengthening the law relating to conditions and practices in slaughterhouses and lairages and to the licensing of premises and slaughtermen. Nearly all those recommendations have been incorporated into legislation, and I think it is generally agreed that the current legislative requirements are as stringent as they reasonably can be. On the other hand, I shall have a little more to say later about the Diseases of Animals Act referred to by my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

The noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, asked about an internal review taking place at MAFF. The internal review now in progress in the Department covers the export of cattle, sheep and pigs for slaughter. It does not cover horses as they are not exported for slaughter. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring compliance with the legislation on humane slaughter of equines. Since 1954 officers of the State Veterinary Service have had a specific duty of advising local authorities on the exercise of their responsibilities in this area, and they have powers of entry for this purpose, into slaughterhouses and knackers' yards.

Reference has been made to the RSPCA. I should like to pay a tribute to that organisation. I think that it might be interesting if I read out parts of a letter from the Chief Veterinary Officer of the RSPCA about the question of the export of horses to the Continent for slaughter. He says: We have followed many consignments of New Forest ponies and also Welshponies to the Continent over a period of the last four or live years. In no case have we ever established that a single pony exported live has been slaughtered on arrival for meat… The Welfare Committee of the British Horse Society has received many allegations of the exporting of ponies and horses for slaughter abroad, but in no case have any of these allegations been substantiated. Although about 20 slaughterhouses in England and Wales are licensed to slaughter horses, as my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby has said, only four are approved to produce horsemeat for export to other EEC countries. These four slaughterhouses must, of course, comply fully with the requirements of national slaughterhouse legislation. In addition they must meet the stringent hygiene standards laid down by EEC legislation on intra-Community trade in fresh meat as the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, will remember from when he was a distinguished Member of the European Parliament.

I am aware of the rapid increase in exports of horesemeat over the last few years. I am also aware of the allegations that, as a result of this increase, there has been overcrowding of the four slaughterhouses which has led to suffering on the part of the horses. My noble friend gave some moving accounts of some of these allegations.

Veterinary officers of the Ministry of Agriculture make frequent visits to these four slaughterhouses. I am informed that during their visits during the last four weeks they have seen nothing to substantiate these allegations. My noble friend has suggested that more slaughterhouses approved to slaughter horses for exports are needed. Although I have no information to suggest that the four slaughterhouses approved at present are unable to deal humanely with the number or horses being sent for slaughter, I would remind your Lordships that financial assistance is already available under the Industry Act 1972 for slaughterhouse operators who wish to bring their premises up to the standards required.

I agree with noble Lords in that I think there is probably a case for having a slaughterhouse approved for slaughter for export to the Continent, in Scotland, and I shall bring what has been said to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Officers of the State Vetinary Service, inspectors employed by the local authorities, the police and the RSPCA maintain a very active oversight of the conditions at sales and markets and also of transport arrangements.

My noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby and the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, have suggested that the present regulations are inadequate and they are not fully enforced. On the first point I can only say that there has been no suggestion from the RSPCA or from the local authorities that the existing legislation is in any way deficient, or that enforcement is not satisfactory. It is, in fact, most unusual for a horse sale not to be attended by at least one inspector or policeman.

I fully recognise the need for continuing vigilance and for the regular re-examination and updating of the regulations which protect our animals. I can assure your Lordships that there is no complacency in the Department. My noble friend is a distinguished Vice-President of the RSPCA and he will be well aware of the work done by inspectors of that Society in protecting the welfare of horses in transit and at markets. Many of the reports are at variance with the factual statements made by RSPCA inspectors who regularly attend these markets.

However, one must recognise that all laws get broken from time to time. Anyone anxious to protect the welfare of horses can best assist by reporting any infringements of the law at once to the police or to the local authority in the area in which infringement occurs. In this way the authorities can take immediate action to alleviate any suffering being caused and, where appropriate, to prosecute those responsible.

My noble friend mentioned the Highland Pony Stud. I am glad to report that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has cancelled the proposed sale this month by public auction of all the ponies in the Scottish National Stud, and he is considering future policy as a matter of urgency.

The BBC "Nationwide" programme about the shipment of horses and ponies was shown on 9th November. The first part concerned Shetland ponies transported to Aberdeen and then, after two weeks in Scotland, taken via the Stranraer-Larne ferry to Northern Ireland—to which reference was made in the debate—and then to the Irish Republic where they were sold to private homes as children's pets. There was nothing in the programme to suggest that the ponies were ill-treated in any way. The second part of the programme concerned the export of horses to France. The programme confirmed that they went to a riding school and the suggestion that these horses might later be slaughtered was pure speculation and not backed by any firm evidence.

The RSPCA confirmed last month that they have followed many consignments of New Forest and Welsh ponies to the Continent over the last four or five years and that in no case have they established that a single pony exported live had been slaughtered for meat on arrival. On the other hand, the "Nationwide" programme shown on 16th November was a programme on the slaughter of horses in Great Britain which did not reveal any evidence of ill-treatment. It made the point, with which I agree, that anyone disposing of a horse or a pony who wishes to ensure that it is not slaughtered would be well advised to sell it privately to some reputable person known to them who can offer it a permanent home.

Statements that British horses and ponies are being slaughtered in order to provide horsemeat for Continental restaurants tend to cause people to assume that horses are being exported from this country for slaughter. That is not so. There are regulations which are designed to prevent the export of horses or ponies from this country to the Continent for slaughter. Before exporting a horse to the Continent the owner must be in possession of either a certificate issued by the Jockey Club that the horse is intended for racing, or a permit issued by the appropriate Agriculture Department. These permits are issued only after officials have fully satisfied themselves that the animals are intended for a legitimate purpose, such as breeding or riding. The horses and ponies which we export are too valuable to be in any danger of slaughter on arrival. Careful inquiries by the RSPCA, as I say, have found no evidence of that.

I might, perhaps, add that the British Veterinary Association has recently produced a code for the conduct of horse sales. This was intended by the Association to be advisory rather than mandatory, but nevertheless veterinary and other officials of the Ministry of Agriculture are looking at these points to see whether any might, with advantage, be included in a new order under the Diseases of Animals Act. In examining this suggestion—and it is one that my noble friend made and which we willingly and gladly take on board—the officials concerned will naturally take account of the views of the recognised animal welfare socities and other interests concerned as well as your Lordships. I shall undertake that all the points that have been made in this debate will be brought to the attention of my right honourable friends.