HL Deb 03 November 2003 vol 654 cc518-20

2.57 p.m.

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have and, following the implementation of European legislation, will continue to have sufficient powers to prevent the export of live horses for slaughter.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government share the concerns that many people have about the welfare of horses. We are reviewing the options available to us in the light of proposals for new European rules on animal welfare during transport to achieve controls that are similar in effect to those in our current rules.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. He will be aware of the concern expressed, for example, by the International League for the Protection of Horses on these issues. However, more specifically, is there not a danger that the protection which the Government have previously been able to extend to horses, in particular by means of the minimum value legislation and so on, is in danger unless the European draft regulations are amended or unless we manage to obtain a further derogation of the kind that we have previously enjoyed? Will the Government do everything possible to suggest and achieve suitable amendments or a suitable derogation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is important to recognise that there never was—as I think the noble Lord recognises—a direct ban on export for slaughter. That was achieved largely through the minimum value regulations, the part of our regulations remaining in force before the Europeans legislated on the matter. It is also important to recognise that the European proposals as a whole provide for enormously improved welfare not only for horses in transit from this country but for horses throughout the Continent where there are much worse incidents of welfare transgression than there are in transport from this country. However, the noble Lord is correct that the minimum value regulations would fall if the present European draft were adopted. We are therefore seeking an alternative approach with the Commission and the industry.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the British people regard horses as friends and companions and not as food and that they do not wish to cause unnecessary suffering and cruelty to their friends?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think we all recognise the special affinity that many in Britain have with horses. Therefore, it is important that we do everything we can to protect their welfare. Of course, the horse passport system, which was not uncontentious in this House, would provide some significant additional protection against horses being exported for slaughter.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, as a past vice-president of the ILPH, I hope that the Minister will look beyond Europe because one of the worst trades in horse flesh originates in South America and probably enters Europe through Italy, and the conditions are an utter disgrace.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware of those problems. It is important to recognise that we are legislating on a European level but the European legislation would relate to any animals which were landed within Europe.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the horse passport scheme. Does he accept that under the current proposals that scheme would encourage the export of live horses to Europe, whereas the previous option; that is, issuing passports only for horses that are entering the food chain, would discourage the live export of horses to Europe?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Viscount is entirely wrong. The whole point about the horse passport scheme, and the reason much of the horse industry has supported it, is that every owner of a horse; can make the declaration that his horse is not destined for consumption as food. Therefore, once the horse passport system is in place it acts as a disincentive to try to use the new rules to export horses from here for slaughter and for the food chain.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, the noble Lord can share all the concerns of my noble friend Lord Higgins as much as he likes and the Government can review all the options available as much as they like, but will he confirm that this is an area:hat has been handed irrevocably to the qualified majority vote in Brussels? There is absolutely nothing we can do about it if we are outvoted. If the corrupt octopus in Brussels wishes to proceed in the way it intends, we have nothing more to say.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I indicated earlier, the result of the corrupt octopus in Brussels—as the noble Lord defines it—taking on this responsibility is that the welfare of horses throughout the Continent will be seriously improved whereas we could affect only the very small trade across the Channel by our own rules. The concern in this country, and that of the organisation to which the noble Baroness has just referred, is the welfare of horses throughout the world. The European rules, and the enforcement of such rules across Europe, will make a big difference to that.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I am genuinely puzzled by the noble Lord's reply with regard to the proposal to introduce horse passports. In what way will the introduction of those passports enable the Government to prevent the export of live horses for slaughter?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I just indicated, the horse passport scheme will require every owner of a horse to declare whether or not that horse is destined for slaughter. I am confident that the vast majority of owners of horses within the United Kingdom will so declare. That means that no horse could be exported for slaughter legitimately from this country.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, following the noble Lord's response to my noble friend, there are only about 10,000 to 12,000 horses exported each year from this country for human consumption. How will the measure stop that because those people who want to export live horses will still export them whether or not they need a licence? I do not quite see how the Minister's response has overcome that problem.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the vast majority of horses that are exported and appear in the statistics are not exported for slaughter or for the food chain. The vast majority are exported for sporting and recreational purposes. In the past horses that were on the face of it exported for recreational purposes may have been diverted into the food chain or used for nefarious purposes. However, under the horse passport scheme the receiver will obtain a certificate with the horse which states that it is not destined for human consumption and he therefore cannot use it anywhere in Europe for the production of food for human consumption.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, do the Government consider that exporting horses for slaughter is a legitimate trade?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as with other live exports, it is a legal trade under European rules, which were mitigated in part by our own rules, particularly the minimum value rules in relation to horses. However, as regards horses and other species, it is our view that the trade would be better directed to the export of dead meat rather than the export of live horses for slaughter into the food chain. There is a very small export of dead horse meat from this country.