Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I should like the House to consider animal welfare. Although I am most definitely an animal lover, like the majority of the British public, I condemn some of the disgraceful methods used by some animal welfare groups to further their aims.
In my time I have kept most animals, from peacocks and goats to baby alligators. As a child, my long-suffering family did not know what I would bring home next in the way of livestock.
Next Tuesday I shall be bringing a horse to the House of Commons. Hon. Members need not concern themselves unduly, because I shall not attempt to bring it into the Chamber. Instead, a peaceful lobby will take place in Abingdon gardens between 2.30 pm and 3 pm. It is being organised by the Animal Welfare Group of Essex, inspired by the Basildon branch and led by a Mr. Clements. The purpose of the lobby is to draw to the attention of the House a shameful practice which negates the effects of an incomplete set of laws. I refer to the growing practice of leaving horses on other people's lands while arrangements are made to move the horses on to slaughter houses, to a port for export or to other markets.
The practice came to my attention because of problems in my constituency, but I understand that it is widespread throughout the United Kingdom, particularly on county and borough boundaries. Once ownership of the land in question is established—which is not always easy—horse owners have a habit of moving their horses to adjacent land so that the whole process must begin again.
In Basildon, a large tract of land is divided between the district council, the development corporation and a large private waste disposal firm. There are few clear boundaries. The horses are moved about the land to avoid legal proceedings. County and borough boundaries also provide perfect places for such manoeuvres, because the animals can be moved over the boundary to land owned by a different authority.
The Animals Act 1971 established that owners are liable for damage caused by the livestock straying on to people's land. The nub of the problem is that no damage is caused. The poor, half-starved animals do little more than forage where they can for the small amount of grass available. Were it not for the kindness of my constituents, many more horses would have died. Last winter two horses had to be put down by the RSPCA.
The Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 makes it an offence to abandon any animal in circumstance liable to cause it unnecessary suffering, but these animals are not legally abandoned. Their owners return to move them to another field or to ship them out, usually before the cumbersome legal machinery has started to operate.
I admit that if the council, the corporation and the private company employed a full-time worker with legal knowledge to keep an eye on the land around Basildon and to take the necessary legal steps at the right time the problem could be confined or kept to reasonable proportions. Expenditure on such an officer is impracticable, especially because of the possible need for a pound, and because of the legal costs involved in an area where the law is unclear, to say the least.
The law allows the owner of the land to sell the horse if it has been kept there for more than 14 days. The scale of the problem is so large that if this section of the Act were put into operation the three organisations involved could well find themselves becoming major horse dealers, in addition to their many other responsibilities. I do not think that we would wish to go down that road.
The long-stop to the existing legislation, such as it is, is the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal. In theory it is a good piece of legislation, but in practice it does nothing for the animal and relies on knowledge of who the owner might be at the time in question.
As the animals are worth one price as meat, they can easily be sold without being seen, so that they can change hands three or four times while remaining in the field to which I have referred. Any action taken by the police involves long and complicated searches throughout Essex to find those responsible. The fact that horses cannot easily be linked to owners means that much time, money and manpower are spent on each search. This problem occurs not only with travellers. We have discovered that some smallholders with one or two horses over the limit allowed on their land are taking the same action.
The. National Farmers Union has come up with an effective arrangement for freeze branding, which is less painful than hot branding, but with the same long-lasting properties. Such a system, given the force of law, would enable private organisations and the police to identify much more simply the owner of a horse.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has designed a good code of practice on the tethering of horses which should go some way to ensure that suffering is eliminated. Included in the code is the provision that clean water should be available at all times. The water available on Pitsea marshes in my constituency can only be described as of dubious quality. The code states that food must be given in all cases where grazing is not adequate. The grazing on Pitsea marshes is reasonable, but cannot be expected to keep a horse in satisfactory health for any length of time. During the winter the animals do not have nearly enough to eat. The two horses that had to be put down had nearly starved to death. The code also contains a provision on the frequency of inspection. It states that horse and tether must be inspected at least twice in 24 hours. The horses are not tethered and, if they are seen by the owners once a month, they are very lucky. All the excellent advice is ignored, and the results are appalling.
What is needed is a consolidation of the law as it stands in relation to animal welfare, with extensions and additions to block not loopholes but veritable motorways through which those who would flout the spirit of the law drive. Freeze branding must be seriously considered, and administrative objections should be examined closely. The RSPCA code of practice on tethering should have the force of law behind it.
I do not believe that the House is disinterested in this matter. It is simply that it has been somewhat too pressed for time to act on the issue. I have every confidence that after my short speech today it will act.
In conclusion, I apologise in advance for being unable to stay to hear the response of the Leader of the House, which I look forward to reading in Hansard.