There have been no recent EC meetings to discuss the Commission's proposals on the welfare of animals during transport. When discussions resume we shall continue to press for the retention of controls to prevent horse exports for slaughter.
I welcome my hon. Friend's reply. Is he aware that I am the chairman of a committee of representatives from organisations throughout Britain which work for the welfare of horses and representatives of controlling interests? The committee is determined to bring to the attention of other European countries the need to take account of the welfare of horses. Horses are not merely pieces of flesh. They are important to this country. What are the Government doing to persuade the other 11 EC countries to support his admirable approach? Without effective effort in that direction we shall get nowhere.
I am aware of the strong contribution that my hon. Friend makes to the cause of protecting horses. Of course, the Government are pressing, through every EC channel open to us, to retain the minimum value controls. I urge my hon. Friend, his committee and various other welfare organisations, who can perhaps move more freely in Europe and do not use the diplomatic channels that we use, to redouble their already excellent efforts to bring home to people in other European countries that the minimum value system should be retained.
Does the Minister accept that the matter causes concern in many areas—urban as much as rural areas? The anxiety is about not only horses but all animals. There is a feeling that if animals are to be killed, it is better that it happens before transport and that, if they are transported live, there should be stringent standards in force to ensure that there is no suffering.
The majority of animals are slaughtered and exported to other countries in carcass form. We want the toughest possible controls on the movement of any animals to any country in the EC. However, we regard horses as a special category because of their particular physiological characteristics. Horses must be protected. The minimum value rules do it. They disadvantage no one commercially except Britain. We are happy to be disadvantaged commercially because of the welfare benefits.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, the attitude of the British towards the health of horses is unique within the EC, which presumably explains the many letters that I have received from constituents calling for the retention of the minimum value system? I sympathise to the hilt with my constituents' concerns. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while those who write such letters to us fully accept that the problem is not of the Government's making, they look to the Government to ensure that, one way or another, the preservation and safety that we want, will remain?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are making strenuous efforts to maintain the minimum value system. I understand that Ireland also has some special and unique controls. Horses and, I suspect dogs have a particular place of affection in the British character, probably going back many years in our history. We want to maintain that and there is no reason why we cannot. We shall use every means at our disposal to argue the case.
May I assure the Minister that he will receive wholehearted support from the Labour party in any efforts that he intends to make to prevent the introduction of the live trade in equines for export and slaughter? Will he acknowledge that there are unique problems involved in the transport of equines from Ireland and Britain that are invariably linked to difficulties associated with transporting goods across the sea? If the Minister fails in his endeavours to maintain the minimum value legislation, will he use the specific geographical problems to which I referred in an effort to seek a derogation, if that is the necessary way to protect horses in this country?
First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's words and the consensus that exists among all parties in the House and all organisations in the country. There are many animal welfare issues on which we are not all in complete agreement, but on this one we are, which is helpful and strengthens our arm in Europe. We are fighting, as our first priority, to maintain our minimum value system. There are fall-back positions if we are not successful in achieving that, and we can be fairly devious in coming up with other systems. However, our first priority is to win—let us not talk about alternatives, but let us persuade our European partners and everyone else to maintain the present system.
We do not intend to fail—we just do not intend to do so. I do not think it appropriate now to discuss any of those secondary issues.