I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am delighted to be able to introduce this simple but important Bill, which I believe will go a long way towards improving the existing legislation on fly-grazing and, in the process, improving horse welfare.
First, I must draw Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As a farmer, although I have not suffered the effects of fly-grazing, I have witnessed at first hand the problem and the horse welfare horrors it causes. It is my aim today, in the time available—I know that a number of hon. Members want to speak—to set out the scale of the problem, explain why the current legislation is not working and set out exactly what the Bill will do. Finally, I will touch on my intention to apply its provisions to private land, with the will of the House, for reasons that I will make clear.
Some Members with long memories may well remember that I secured a similar debate on the connected issue of illegally tethered horses back in July 2012. Last November, my hon. Friend Damian Hinds secured an excellent debate on the issue of fly-grazing. Unfortunately, the problem has worsened since then. I appreciate that for some, the problem of fly-grazing might seem somewhat mundane, but try telling that to the farmer whose crops are being destroyed, the motorist whose life is endangered by a horse on the road or the animal welfare charities that work tirelessly every single day to rescue horses from the miserable existence to which so many are condemned.
At the core of the issue is a simple but profound point of principle: that no one should be above the law. Abandoning horses to a life of neglect has no place in civil society, nor should people’s lives be negatively impacted by those who have little regard for the law. Habitual fly-grazing represents a complete and utter lack of respect for the law and the wider community. Frankly, it is beyond me how some people have the nerve to take over someone else’s land without permission for their own gain.
It is impossible to know precisely what the true scale of the problem is. My constituents on the edge of York face the problem of fly-grazing, but sadly it is not restricted to York or the great region of Yorkshire. It is found throughout the entire country, from the countryside to our towns and cities, and even on some busy roundabouts.
I would like to place on record my thanks to Members from all parts of the House for their support since I introduced the Bill. We need cross-party co-operation to tackle what has become a terrible problem for many communities up and down the country. I have been working with a wide variety of rural organisations and welfare charities, ranging from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and World Horse Welfare to the Countryside Alliance, the Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers Union. I also wish to put on record my thanks to all the charities and organisations that have worked hard on the issue. If the organisations that I have mentioned can agree that this fundamental animal welfare issue needs addressing—they do not always agree—there is hope yet that Members from all parts of the House can work together to tackle it.
Definitive numbers are impossible to provide, but welfare charities believe that unlawful fly-grazing has increased significantly in recent years, with conservative estimates that at least 3,000 to 4,000 horses are being fly-grazed in England alone. During the past decade, fly-grazed horses have become an acute problem for farmers and local authorities. The lack of care that the horses receive, and the actions of their irresponsible owners, are threatening people’s livelihoods, causing huge animal welfare problems, and risking the lives of motorists. This is a horse crisis of unprecedented levels, which is exactly how animal welfare charities and rural organisations regard the issue.
Two excellent reports have been published on this issue: “Left on the Verge” and “Stop the Scourge”. Those reports are essential reading for all Members present today, and indeed some may touch on them later in the debate. Unfortunately, rural organisations have all reported an increase in the number of cases of horse neglect and abandonment that have been brought to their attention. The irresponsible horse owners who engage in the practice appear to have little concern for the impact they are having on people’s lives, and people from across the country have contacted me with their own stories of how existing laws are letting them down.
In my constituency of York Outer there have been a number of incidents involving horses being fly-grazed. A month ago an accident on the A64 from York to Bridlington involved two horses that were being fly-grazed and a cement lorry. Sadly, but as one would expect, the consequences were not good. One horse died almost immediately, but the second was only injured and subsequently went missing. It had been moved by persons unknown, but was later traced back to a local site where the RSPCA attempted to treat the injured animal. Unfortunately, the mare had to be euthanized soon afterwards, as although she appeared to be responding to treatment, vets were unable to control her pain and she was found to be bleeding internally. The owner of the horse has yet to come forward.
In November 2013, three Shetland ponies were removed from the same site in my constituency in extremely poor body condition. The attending vet gave the ponies body scores of 0.5 and 1 out of 5—a score below 1 is officially categorised as “emaciated”, and the animal is all too often close to death by that point. Although the RSPCA was advised who the owner was and was able to contact them and conduct interviews, it was unable to prove ownership so the case could never proceed to court. Thankfully, the ponies were re-homed.
A further case from my postbag involved another horse being hit by passing traffic on the A1079 from York to Hull. It was reported that the owner had discovered the horse in a terrible state of pain in a field where it was being fly-grazed, yet they decided to leave the animal to die in a neighbouring field without any veterinary attention. Again, the RSPCA was unable to prove ownership of the horse, which must serve as a reminder that those tragedies would never have occurred if the owners had looked after their horses responsibly and not left them abandoned to their own devices.
Fly-grazing not only blights the lives of horses subject to it, but also impacts on farmers who grow our food. A 2012 survey by the National Farmers Union found that more than 1,000 farmers have direct experience of fly-grazing, and a similar number are aware of neighbours who have been victims of it. More than half of all respondents had suffered from fly-grazing on their land on multiple occasions, with more than a third affected more than five times in a single year.
This week I received telephone calls from farmers from Richmondshire and South Yorkshire. In the latter case, an elderly farmer has for the best part of a decade had up to 80 horses being fly-grazed on his land, yet Doncaster council has consistently failed to address the problem. It appears that this very serious case also included a long campaign of intimidation by the owners of the horses that, the farmer believes, resulted in the much hastened death of his neighbour, an elderly farmer in his eighties, after a dead horse was left at the end of his lane in a grim Mafia-style warning. Because of such behaviour, many people fear reprisals and do not want to come forward so that those responsible can be held to account. Fly-grazing is part of the much wider issue of rural criminality, which all too often goes unnoticed by the metropolitan elite. Meanwhile, lives are blighted by criminal damage and intimidation of often vulnerable people in isolated households.
Local authorities have also suffered the ill-effects of fly-grazing, both in their capacity as landowners and from trying to address the situation as enforcers of the existing legislation. In a survey in 2014 conducted by animal welfare charities, more than 70% of responding local authorities said that fly-grazing was a problem in their area. One authority even reported spending more than £100,000 on attempting to crack down on the issue. More than 80% of local authorities surveyed also said that the changes I propose in the Bill would help them to address fly-grazing more effectively in the future. That support has been further cemented by my meeting with the Local Government Association on this issue.
The reasons behind the growing prevalence of fly-grazing are complex. My understanding is that since the horsemeat scandal that devastated our confidence in the EU’s food safety process the price of horsemeat has plummeted. Notwithstanding that collapse, irresponsible dealers have continued to buy, breed and import horses, and the market has become saturated. A horse can now be purchased for as little as £5, although it can cost in excess of £100 a week to look after it properly. Some evidence suggests that irresponsible dealers are importing horses from France and Ireland under the tripartite agreement that allows for free movement of horses without health checks. As the market for horsemeat in mainland Europe is also depressed, dealers are left with a surplus of horses, much of which—sadly—can be seen grazing along the roadside and in other people’s fields.
Over-breeding of horses is also a significant issue and another great concern that I share with the animal welfare charities. Irresponsible horse owners are failing to ask themselves, “Do I need to breed from my horse? Is there a market for the foals? Can I afford the costs involved in caring for and supporting more horses?” When the answer to those questions is no, the temptation to fly-graze is all too clear, especially when enforcement action is so varied.
One area that has got to grips with the problem is Wales. The Welsh Government have given their local authorities powers to seize fly-grazed horses after seven days and, if necessary, to destroy them. Seven days is still a long time to wait to seize a fly-grazed horse, although the existing legislation in England provides for 14 days. A shorter period would benefit everyone involved. The code of practice on the welfare of horses says that owners should check on their horses at least once a day, so if a horse has merely strayed—as opposed to being deliberately fly-grazed—the owner should pick up on that very quickly.
The main mechanism for dealing with fly-grazing has been the Animals Act 1971. Under the Act, it is possible for landowners to detain livestock that strays on to their land after 14 days, and sell such livestock at auction or public market.
It was drawn up at a time when animals fetched a good price at auction and there were not so many horses being grazed, and unfortunately it was not designed for the problem of deliberately fly-grazed horses. There are, therefore, numerous problems with using the Act to deal with this growing issue. For example, it refers to animals straying on to other people’s land, but with fly-grazing we are concerned with animals placed deliberately on someone else’s land without their permission, which is a different matter, both in action and intention.
The Act allows animals to be sold at auction, but often the horses have little or no value, and it is commonplace for the owner to buy back the horse at a knock-down price, the horse having been microchipped by the person or local authority responsible for the horse’s initial detention. Thus, the irresponsible horse owner who engages in fly-grazing at the expense of others gains a fully vetted and legally compliant horse at little cost. The current law, therefore, has the perverse effect of allowing them to benefit from their actions, while leaving local authorities, farmers and taxpayers to pick up the pieces.
Welfare charities have argued strongly for a mechanism whereby the horse being fly-grazed can either be re-homed or, in some circumstances, humanely destroyed. Sadly, there is often no demand for horses for re-homing. The RSPCA, World Horse Welfare and Redwings tell me that their re-homing centres are full of unwanted horses. Sadly, we have too many horses, and without the measures proposed in my Bill the cycle of fly-grazing will continue unabated, with horses growing in numbers and the problem spreading further and wider.
Another major problem with the Animals Act is that it requires the person detaining the fly-grazed horse to look after it for up to 14 days. During this time, they are responsible for the horse’s welfare—they have to feed and water the horse and ensure it does not stray or harm itself—which can be expensive. This is the nub of my point. Too often, an irresponsible owner who abandons a horse on someone else’s land has no intention of paying any of these costs, and although there is provision in the Act to recover costs, it is often impossible to do so because there is seldom any way to identify the owner.
The authorities can use other mechanisms to crack down on fly-grazing. If a horse is suffering, it is possible to use provisions in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to take emergency action, but often the horses are not in immediate distress, so the emergency provisions are not applicable, and they might then be left until they are in severe distress, which cannot be correct. In some cases, local authorities could issue a community protection notice, under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, but in such cases the owner of the fly-grazed horse would have to be known. As I said, however, too often the owner’s identity is not known—and the weapons in our armoury against the scourge of fly-grazing are all the weaker for it.
As a proud Yorkshireman, taking inspiration from the Welsh is an unusual concept for me, but that is exactly what the Bill does. It takes inspiration from the Welsh Assembly’s example in order to close the current loopholes. It would make several small but significant amendments to the 1971 Act to make it easier to tackle fly-grazing head on.
I propose three changes. First, the Bill gives local authorities in England the power to detain a horse in any public place in its area where the authority has reasonable belief that the horse is there without lawful authority. It is worth noting that the provision can apply to both stray horses and ones placed there deliberately by irresponsible owners. This is similar to the powers available to local authorities in Wales under the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014.
After detaining a horse—and detaining can include removal—the local authority must inform the local police within 24 hours of its right to detain the horse. Once the police have been informed, the local authority may detain the horse for a total of four working days from when it was first detained. The current time frame in Wales is seven days. To my mind, seven days is still quite a long time for a landowner or local authority to have to care, house and support a horse that is not one of their own. After that time, the local authority may dispose of the horse by selling it, arranging for it to be humanely destroyed or in any other way such as gifting the horse to an animal welfare sanctuary or re-homing it with a loving family, if at all possible.
After four working days, the owner of the horse will no longer be able to claim it back—crucially breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect. Where a horse is sold and money is left over from the sale, any excess money once the costs of looking after it have been deducted can be claimed back by the owner. As I said, however, the horses are often of such low value that there is hardly ever money left over after the sale.
It has always been my intention that these changes to the Animals Act 1971 should be applied to all land—to private land as well as to public places. I am advised by the Public Bill Office, however, that the long title of this version of Bill does not stretch to the inclusion of private land. Sadly, this was due to a slight misunderstanding between myself and the department that seeks to keep control and order in this place. My intention, with the support of the House, is that, should the Bill reach Committee, we consider amending it to extend the same provision to private land as to public land. This would allow occupiers of private land the same benefits as those of local authorities with respect to public places. In my opinion, it is essential that public and private land receive the same protection under the law from fly-grazing. Otherwise, we could see the mass migration of thousands of horses on to private land, as it becomes clear that many irresponsible horse owners know full well how to exploit the law’s current loopholes.
I am advised that for the Committee to consider such amendments as are cognate to the Bill, this House would need to pass an instruction. I hope that time will be available for such a motion, and I ask whether the Minister would be willing to table the instruction. Should the Public Bill Committee agree, the intention would be to amend the Bill’s long title in order to make it consistent with provisions relating to private land as well as public land.
In conclusion, the issue of fly-grazing affects a great number of people in a great many ways, as I have made clear and, I am sure, as other Members will make clear. In almost every case, an innocent law-abiding person is either endangered or taken advantage of. This issue is a cause of deep anger and frustration for many individuals up and down the country who want to see robust action taken. I hope that Members will support me in trying to take that action and that the law will be changed so that it applies universally and fairly. I believe the Bill will go a long way towards tackling the scourge of fly-grazing, and I commend it to the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy on having had the determination to present the Bill.
I am not sure whether I need to declare an interest. I have kept horses and ponies for a long time, but I can assure the House that I have never fly-grazed one of mine. Like many other horse owners, I am acutely aware of the cost of responsible horse ownership. I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my time focusing on a reduction in numbers—not altogether successfully, because the direction of travel always seems to be up.
My hon. Friend rightly identified the issue of irresponsible ownership, but let me emphasise that the vast majority of Britain’s horse owners are entirely responsible. Their animals are, in many ways, treated like their children. Just like other pet animals, they are part of the family—loved, cherished and looked after. There are many of them: although no accurate figures exist, which is a problem in itself, it is thought that there are between 600,000 and 1.2 million horses in the United Kingdom. They are also big business. In 2011, the British Equestrian Trade Association estimated that the horse industry contributed £2.8 billion to the British economy every year.
According to some terrifying statistics produced by Equine World UK, the cost of keeping a single horse can range between just over £3,000 and £10,000 a year, depending on how the horse is kept. The British Horse Society has produced a detailed breakdown of the costs of responsible horse ownership. Interestingly, there is no total at the end, and I did not dare tot up the sums; suffice it to say that they are the sort of eye-watering numbers that I have spent all my life trying to keep from my father.
Those figures, of course, relate to responsible ownership. They include farriery costs and the costs of vaccinations, worming, equine dentists and vets. Those are costs that all who cherish their animals willingly pay, but the owners described by my hon. Friend simply do not bother with them. That is the reason for the horrific welfare cases with which so many equine charities are struggling to cope. When they are called to places such as Alton in Hampshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Damian Hinds, the rescue charities are not contending with fit and healthy animals; they are dealing with starving, sick animals, riddled with parasites, and with hooves that have grown to such an extent that they bring to mind pictures that used to be seen only in advertisements for foreign welfare charities.
I picked Alton—perhaps unfairly, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire cannot be here today—largely because when I was chief executive of the National Pony Society, it was based in that town. The NPS is Britain’s oldest pony charity, and is dedicated to the welfare of British native breeds and the British riding pony. It does not have a rescue facility of its own, but it is a member of the National Equine Welfare Council.
I remember from meetings that I attended back in 2008-09 that the welfare crisis was well known then, and the rescue centres were already struggling to cope. Wind the clock forward five-plus years, and the situation is much worse. The numbers are much higher, the cost of feed has gone up, and charities that were previously struggling to cope have now gone beyond breaking point. That does not mean that they are not doing their absolute best in extremely difficult circumstances. When, as happened in Alton, they are called to a field of 45 horses that have been dumped by their owners—and, in that instance, multiple owners were thought to have been involved—for whatever reason, and have been left to fend for themselves as a herd, the charities are already at capacity, and in many cases, sadly, there is only one viable option. No one likes to talk about euthanasia, but for sick, old, lame and starving horses it can be the kindest option. However, there are then the costs of destruction. The British Horse Society estimates that it can easily run to £500 per animal, and who is to pick up the bill when animals are not necessarily microchipped or freeze-branded and no one can trace the legal owner?
The case that I have just described occurred on what was definitely private land. Let me now say something about what happens on local authority-owned land. I have never forgotten the sight of two small ponies trotting down Coxford road in Southampton right past the general hospital. Few Members in the Chamber today will recognise the geography of Southampton, so let me assure them that that is right in the urban core of the city. I have no idea where those two ponies had come from, but the only open land anywhere near there are the cemetery, the municipal golf course, Southampton common and the sports centre, all of which are owned by the city council.
I do not know if those ponies had come from any of those areas, but I do know that fly-grazing has been a problem in the city for many years. It has happened on both private and public land, but areas such as Peartree green have frequently been abused in this way, and it causes distress and concern for local residents. Many of them are simply not used to seeing relatively large animals with potentially dangerous traits—I learned from a very early age that they kick at one end and bite at the other—and it can be extremely scary, especially for the parents of young children who wish to use the play areas and the sports pitches, and also for the horses themselves, which are not usually used to being in an urban environment and can sometimes be found tethered with inadequate access to food and water and without the sort of shelter responsible owners lavish upon them.
Of course in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency we might reasonably expect horses to be commonplace. There is a small corner of the New Forest in my constituency and at Canada and Wellow commons we can find the indigenous New Forest ponies in abundance. I am the first to celebrate feral ponies running wild—our traditional mountain and moorland breeds, which can be found in their natural state all over the British isles. It entertained me earlier to hear the Minister speaking of the national parks of Exmoor and Dartmoor, but in many cases it is our national parks where we find our native species running free, from the Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies in the south-west to the original Thelwell ponies on the Shetland islands—as an aside, Norman Thelwell was one of Romsey’s most famous former residents, who lived on the banks of the river Test. However, these are distinct cases and very different from the situations my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy has identified in his Bill, but I am sure he has considered them, and fully considered how the national park authorities might address this sort of issue, should they encounter it.
In other parts of my constituency there have been real problems with semi-feral herds of ponies, including an unfortunate incident earlier this year at Braishfield, where a large number of ponies escaped and ran loose through the famous Harold Hillier gardens and arboretum, causing much damage. While there can be an almost comical aspect to the prospect of police community support officers, police officers and local residents running through the gardens chasing after roughly 80 ponies, it is not funny for a motorist who encounters a dark-coloured pony in the dead of night standing in the middle of the road.
If we find a horse or pony loose, they are very tricky to identify. Yes, since 2009 all foals have had to be microchipped, but when there are large fields of horses with no discernible owner indiscriminately breeding among themselves, who exactly is checking whether they all have passports or microchips? Local authorities simply do not have the resources or the expertise to be matching fields of feral horses to what in many cases is non-existent documentation.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer rightly referred to the problem of over-breeding and identified that in many instances owners might decide simply to continue breeding when there is no viable market for the stock they produce. I would highlight that those who breed responsibly do so very scientifically and with much thought, in many cases with generations of knowledge and expertise, but even they, producing very high quality animals with commitment, love and dedication, cannot find homes for all the ponies they produce—or certainly are finding it very difficult to do so with an economic return on them. Why then are irresponsible owners simply getting away with indiscriminate breeding? In many cases, close relatives will be breeding among themselves, producing many conformational defects and horses that are never going to be any use on the open market because they are not sound and never will be?
Earlier this year a loose pony was found on the A36 trunk road running through my constituency. I met one of my constituents clinging desperately on to it with a length of washing line in the car park of the local convenience store, and I did the decent thing and took it home. As I did so, I spoke to a police officer who had been forced to stop all the traffic on the trunk road, and a jam was building up. I said, “What do I do with it now? How are we going to find the owner?” I was met with the response, “We’ll just wait until somebody notices it is missing.” I looked at this beast, which I did not much want—it was very sweet, but I did not want to keep it or have the costs associated with doing so—and was told that the owner might appear. Last night we debated the perils of social media but this incident proved their power, because once the mugshot of the offending pony was plastered all over Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat the owner recognised the wandering criminal, came forward, collected it and took it home.
I wondered what would have happened if they had not done so. How long would I have been left with this wee beastie? If I had sent it to auction, that would in no way have met the cost of keeping it for however long was necessary. If it had had to be sent to be humanely destroyed, I certainly was not going to be the one stumping up £500 for that. The local authorities do not have the capacity to stable unwanted straying horses, the charities are at breaking point and the police certainly did not want to be lumbered with this beast, although they were keen to get it off the main road. Thankfully, it eventually went home. I cannot say that I blame the local authority or the police for not wanting it, because the costs of stabling it would have been horrendous, and over long periods, in particular, our public services and local authorities cannot be expected to sustain those, especially not in the numbers we have heard about today.
Hampshire is thought to have about 5,000 fly-grazed horses and ponies, and is second only to Surrey in that respect. Those figures were put together by the Country Land and Business Association. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has done sterling work in introducing the Bill, which aims to remove the ambiguities in the current law, and consolidate powers into one place and strengthen them. He has worked tirelessly to secure Government support and, given that, as he said earlier, the situation is a crisis, he has been absolutely right to do so. What we all want from this Bill is an improved welfare situation; greater clarity for local authorities so that they can more easily detain, secure and dispose of animals that are causing a hazard and being illegally grazed; an avoidance of situations where owners at the last minute remove one animal and replace it with a different one; and, importantly, a presumption that, if you can find them, the owner of the horse will be liable for damage and all associated costs.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, who brings to this debate a good deal of experience in the ownership of horses, both as a child and as a responsible adult. It is also a pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the
Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on bringing this Bill to the House. Like her, he knows a great deal about this subject, both as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a farmer. He has set out the facts and the concerns that a great number of his constituents and mine, and no doubt those of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, have as a consequence of the unlawful grazing of animals on other people’s property. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to sum up this debate and respond on behalf of the Government. His presence here highlights the importance the Government place on this matter. It is important that we try to produce a practical solution to this obvious problem.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer said, the current legislation is well meaning but it is inadequate to deal with the problem we face, which is a national one. The Welsh Government have attempted to deal with it, but in his constituency, as in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North and in my own, in Leicestershire, we see on a daily basis the difficulties caused by irresponsible owners and the illegal use of other people’s land.
At the moment, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer candidly accepted, the Bill deals with public land only. It is most important that it is adjusted to enable the owners of private land to be protected by its provisions. The problem on public land is bad enough, but until we sort out the private land problem, we are only nibbling at the problem.
We have all seen examples—I have certainly seen them in my constituency—of horses either tethered or wandering about on main road verges, roundabouts and other vacant land, which may or may not be in public ownership, strictly speaking, but which is certainly accessible to the public. There one sees—predominantly, I am afraid, they are coloured horses or ponies—horses of varying degrees of health. Just outside my constituency in Enderby, which is close to the city of Leicester, I have seen horses that could only be described as toast racks. I have seen them lying alive but unable to move in puddles, in boggy fields and in the most appalling state and the most uncomfortable conditions. Until those irresponsible owners are prepared to own up to owning them, very little can be done of a practical nature.
At the heart of the matter is how best to use public resources to deal with the problem and how best to discover and then to deploy the evidence of ownership. Without evidence of ownership, even under my hon. Friend’s measures, it will still be difficult to pin on those errant owners financial responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
I applaud the introduction of measures that will allow local authorities to dispose of such beasts, either by sale or destruction at an abattoir, but I worry that if the local authority cannot sell the beasts, and as my hon. Friend has quite properly said, these animals are of little financial worth, and is forced to have them destroyed—to have them put down—that will involve a cost.
As we well understand—this is not a controversial party political point—our local authorities are short of cash. Harborough district council has a revenue budget of between £10 million and £12 million a year. It is not a large metropolitan authority with lots of money. It must husband its resources extremely carefully. It must have an order of priorities. If it is a question of performing a more general and acceptable public service or spending its limited resources on taking abandoned horses to the abattoir, I suspect that it will place the removal of the horses at the bottom end of the list of priorities and that the problem will persist.
I look to the Minister to see whether he can provide us with at least an indication, if not the whole answer, of what we do when a local authority would like—it is not a matter of wishing or desiring, but this is the only option available to it—the horse to be taken to the knackers or the abattoir, but the cost of doing so is an inhibiting factor, even if not wholly prohibitive.
There is this great problem of ownership. Far too many people need to be brought to book, whether under the criminal law or under the civil system of justice, for their irresponsible ownership of their animals. The shorter detention period that my hon. Friend’s Bill would introduce is a welcome amendment to the law. He set out the deficiencies or difficulties caused by the existing legislation, particularly the Animals Act 1971. A number of other pieces of legislation work to a greater or lesser degree, but they all founder on the difficulty of pinning ownership on an individual or a group of individuals who can be required to accept responsibility.
Evidence, evidence, evidence is what we need, and unfortunately this Bill does not provide for it, but at least if local authorities and, when the Bill is amended in Committee, private landowners can, after the shorter detention period, deal with the animals in question, I hope the problem will be lessened and the Bill, as amended, will have a deterrent effect. Once the legislation is in force, I hope the Government will make sure that nobody can be in any doubt that if they leave their horses on somebody else’s land, be it a private owner or a public owner, the horses will be confiscated and brought into the ownership of other people, who will be able to dispose of them, and that if the original owner can be found, it will be at their cost.
I have one question which my hon. Friend the Minister may be able to answer when he responds to the debate, or perhaps on another occasion or in writing to me. That relates to one of the conditions in the proposed amendment to section 7A of the Animals Act 1971, which is dealt with in clause 2. Subsection (2) of proposed new section 7B states:
“The right to detain the horse ceases at the end of the period of 24 hours beginning with the time when it is first detained unless, within that period, the local authority gives notice of the detention to”— this is where the question lies— the officer in charge of a police station”.
What is the officer in charge of the police station supposed to do with the information? Is that simply a box that has to be ticked or does it place a positive duty or burden on the police to do something? No doubt the affected landowner would like the police to go and search for the owner of the horse. Certainly, that is what I have asked my local police to do on behalf of my farmers and owners of fields who have had their grazing land trespassed upon by these ponies. Like the local authority, my police force does not have endless resources.
The intention is to allow people who have legitimately lost their horse, or whose horse has broken free from land it has been grazed on—paddock land and so on—and has strayed, to log that with the local police force. If the police have that information, they can then respond accordingly so that the shorter period of detention does not impact on those legitimate horse owners.
That is extremely helpful; I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. That releases my hon. Friend the Minister from having to deal with that point, which has now been dealt with comprehensively. That is the advantage of having a chap who knows what he is talking about introducing the Bill.
All that needs to be said has been said by my hon. Friends and I will therefore curtail my remarks, apart from two general points. First, if the Bill is to work, it is essential that we collect evidence of ownership and tighten up the means by which we identify the owners of horses. It is well said in the document “Stop the Scourge”, which was produced by a number of bodies interested in the subject whose concerns are well set out, that if we do not improve the way in which we identify horse owners, there will be a lot of tears before bedtime. The existing identification system needs to be strengthened.
Secondly, we need to make sure that the balance of resource is properly distributed. I fear it is a matter of practicalities. We are unlikely to recover much money from the errant horse owners. There will therefore be a competition, or the absence of a competition, between public authorities over who should have to pay for all this. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to have some intense discussions with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government on how we distribute the burden of sorting out what is an obvious problem.
As I said a moment ago, I have had any number of constituents bring to my attention the problems they face as a result of having horses unlawfully on their land. I have had a number of meetings with the Market Harborough branch of the National Farmers Union, a number of whose members have been physically threatened, and indeed physically assaulted, by the owners of those ponies and horses. It is extremely frustrating for them, as law-abiding, tax-paying, farming citizens, to have to watch those people stick two fingers up at them as the horses trample on their crops, predate on their grazing and cause them endless trouble.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer for introducing the Bill and wish him every success with it, not least with his amendment to introduce the aspect of private land ownership. I urge all parties in the House to allow him the triumph that he well and truly deserves.
I begin by thanking Julian Sturdy for bringing forward this important private Member’s Bill. His comments demonstrated a clear understanding of the issues relating to fly-grazing, such as the impact on horse welfare, the burden that this illegal habit places on local authorities and why it has been increasing in recent years. He has a long history of campaigning on the issue and, as Caroline Nokes pointed out, he has worked hard to secure Government support for the measures being debated today. He underlined the cross-party support for the Bill, which I will talk more about later.
I also thank the other Members who have spoken, the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North and Sir Edward Garnier, who both highlighted the problem in their constituencies. I also want to put on the record our thanks to the organisations that have campaigned long and hard to get this issue on the national political agenda, including the RSPCA, Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings. They all came together recently to produce a damning report entitled “Left on the Verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales”, which the hon. Member for York Outer referred to. It catalogues the appalling neglect and animal welfare abuse all over the country, including in his constituency.
In short, this problem affects all parts of the UK—I want to emphasize that point—and it is growing. The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North rightly indicated the extent of the problem in her area, in Hampshire, and, in particular, in Surrey. The hon. Member for York Outer also pointed out that it is a big issue in north Yorkshire and in places such as Doncaster. Although Doncaster is governed at local level by a metropolitan local authority, it does not have the significant resources required to deal with such problems. We should not be using local authority money to deal with these illegal activities. We need to deal with the problem, which affects the whole UK.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough also referred to “Stop the Scourge”, the booklet recently produced to indicate the depth and scale of the problem and what needs to be done. What is pleasing about that report is that the RSPCA and the Countryside Alliance are on the same page—something we do not often see. That indicates the strength of feeling on this issue across the country, and the strength of the consensus about how to deal with it.
It is important to point out that there are many good horse and pony owners, including many in the Traveller community, for whom responsible horse ownership and trading is an integral part of their way of life and culture. However, there is also a minority of people who, for many reasons, are not responsible. Those people do not care about animal welfare and frequently put horses at risk, never minding the damage and dangers that they create for others with their irresponsible actions. The incident on the A64 highlighted those dangers perfectly.
Illegal fly-grazing is a complex issue with many aspects. The dumping of horses is often a consequence of over-breeding and the drop in the value of horses. There is a lack of passporting and micro-chipping to enable easy identification of horse ownership, as has been clearly illustrated by all the examples that have been laid before us. It is to do with the complexity of outdated legislation, which allows unscrupulous owners, at great taxpayer expense, to dance around the authorities and enforcement regimes. It is also about criminality.
Labour Members believe that this issue needs urgent attention, and we therefore support the Bill and hope that it makes good progress. That is not to say that we are completely happy with it, or that it will not benefit from improvement in Committee, as the hon. Member for York Outer acknowledged. We believe, like him, that it could be improved in some areas.
Before I move on to our concerns about the Bill in its current form, I would like to comment briefly on the lack of action by the Government. In contrast to Labour in Wales, which has grappled with this issue and already brought forward legislation to deal with it, Ministers in this place have dithered and done nothing while the problem grows. As my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies recently stated, the Government could have introduced amendments to existing legislation, such as the Animals Act 1971, to improve the situation, but they have chosen not to act.
Alternatively, Ministers could have brought forward a simple Bill, as did the Welsh Government, that would have given local authorities and other agencies the powers they are asking for to deal with this issue—powers relating to proof of ownership, to removal, and to the ability to dispose of animals removed in such a way. Instead, we have seen nothing, and now, perversely we see the problem growing in England after Wales has acted. In short, parts of England are being seen as the softer option, and Wales’s problem is being exported to add to the existing problems that we have in England.
We do absolutely welcome the Bill. However, one major difference between this Bill and the legislation introduced by the Welsh Assembly is that it covers only public land, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. That, in our view, is a major weakness. Without the inclusion of private land, enforcement would be difficult, if not impossible in many cases, and that is unacceptable. For the Bill to be effective, all types of tenure of land need to be included. We believe that private land needs to be added to its provisions, and we would support its strengthening accordingly. I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the use of an instruction by way of a motion for the House to consider. We will support any motion of that kind in order to get the Bill into the right form. I hope that the Minister will say the same, and that we can all continue to work together on this on a cross-party basis.
The RSPCA has seen a 20% rise in calls relating to tethered horses, and over the past few years there has been a huge rise in incidents of fly-grazing reported to local authorities. The impact, therefore, is not just on local authorities, whether they are large or small and whatever their resources, but on big charities such as the RSPCA, which is feeling the pressure because it has to deal with the issue.
Our outdated and ill-fitting legislation and enforcement powers are allowing criminals to pirouette through their responsibilities and evade justice while horses suffer and landowners, whether they are public or private, find themselves enmeshed in a cruel and unnecessary tragic farce.
We wish the Bill well as it passes through its perilous parliamentary journey, which could be made much easier with Government backing. There is every indication that they do back it, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and hope we can get the Bill through the House and the legislative process. We will continue to offer our support, so long as the Bill deals with the issue in its entirety. However, let me make one thing clear: if this Bill fails to make it to the statute book or, indeed, if it remains too weak to be able to tackle this most serious of issues, we will legislate to stop this practice, if we form the next Government.
I welcome this opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to tackling the issue of fly-grazing. Before I begin, perhaps I ought to declare an interest: I am a member of the Flicka Foundation, which is a horse and donkey sanctuary based in my constituency. As part of my membership package, I think I adopted a donkey called Tabitha.
My hon. Friend Julian Sturdy has long championed this issue. As he said in his opening remarks, he first held a debate in Parliament on this issue as long ago as 2012. I am happy to tell him that, sometimes, persistence pays off in this place, because I am delighted to confirm that the Government will support this simple but important Bill, which we believe could have a significant impact on helping people deal effectively with the issue of fly-grazing.
Many hon. Members will have had large amounts of correspondence from their constituents on this important issue. Animal welfare charities have done a great deal to highlight some of the challenges, including by producing reports such as “Left on the Verge”, to which the shadow Minister, Angela Smith, referred. As some hon. Members have said, it is estimated that there are some 3,000 stray ponies and fly-grazing horses in Wales and another 2,500 or so in England, so this is a serious problem.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has pointed out, this is not the first time we have debated the issue. Indeed, last November, about a month into my appointment as the Minister responsible for farming, we had a debate that had been secured by my hon. Friend Damian Hinds. During that debate, we heard about the many problems caused by people fly-grazing their horses, and we have heard more about that today. In some parts of the country, significant numbers of horses are being fly-grazed and such incidents appear to be occurring more frequently. There have been incidents of fly-grazing horses straying on to the highways and, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer noted in introducing the Bill, in at least one case that has led, sadly, to the death of a person in a road accident.
Since the November debate, there have been many calls on the UK Government to replicate for England the provisions in the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. We have been watching developments in Wales with interest. My hon. Friend said that he was reluctant to seek inspiration from Wales on this issue. As a Cornishman, I have no such reluctance: we western Celts have much in common and often learn from one another.
During last November’s debate I set out the approach we have taken in England to date, which has been to encourage all relevant local interests—local authorities, police, farmers, landowners and animal welfare charities—to co-operate to tackle the issues on the ground using the existing legislation. It is worth remembering that that there are four key relevant Acts, including the Animals
Act 1971 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is relevant to the issue of horses in distress. I also highlighted during the November debate the potential for the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to give us stronger powers to deal with fly-grazing; I will return to that later. Finally, there is the Highways Act 1980.
Since the debate in November, we have given the issue more consideration. I can tell the House that my noble Friend Lord de Mauley has done a lot of work on it. He has met welfare charities, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, to discuss what can be done. The Government now recognise that making small amendments to the 1971 Act would go a long way to ensure that the provisions work better for those trying to deal with fly-grazing. The amendments would bring the legislation up to date, and make the process more efficient and less burdensome.
The debate in November brought out the fact, which has been highlighted again today, that there have been several changes since 1971. The first change is the introduction of microchipping and horse IDs. As I noted in the previous debate, since 2009 it has been a legal requirement that horses be identified with a microchip and passport. We know that many people who fly-graze horses do not do that, which has created two problems that we did not have in 1971. First, it makes it very difficult to identify and tackle the owners. Secondly, it makes it all the more expensive for local authorities and others to deal with the issue. Once they have detained a horse, they have to microchip and passport it themselves before selling it, which places added costs and burdens on them.
Another development since 1971 has been the change in the mode of sale or disposal of fly-grazed horses. Under the 1971 Act, a detained horse can be disposed of only through sale at market or auction. In 1971, when the Act was drawn up, animals fetched a good price at auction, and fewer horses were fly-grazed. My hon. Friend’s Bill proposes to amend the 1971 Act to provide a more flexible set of options, including euthanasia, sale or gifting to a charity.
The reality is that horses often have little or no monetary value today. There have even been cases of the owner of a detained horse buying it back at a knock-down price at auction, after it had been microchipped by the person who detained it. The fly-grazer was therefore able to gain a legally compliant horse at little cost, which cannot be fair. We need to address that matter, and my hon. Friend’s Bill does just that.
We have listened to the animal welfare charities. They have strongly argued for a mechanism whereby fly-grazed horses can either be re-homed or, in some cases, put down. Sadly, there is so little demand for horses and so much demand for re-homing that charities such as the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare and Redwings have all reported that their re-homing centres are full of unwanted horses.
Is there a direct correlation between the increase in fly-grazing and the fact that the value of horses has dropped so much? People just do not care any more: as horses have no value, they might as well fly-graze them.
From listening to the animal welfare charities, we know that part of the problem has undoubtedly been a lot of irresponsible breeding of horses. Horses are being bred for whom there is no market. Sadly, they are then abandoned by people who, frankly, are not fit to own horses in the first place.
I want to move on to the central feature of my hon. Friend’s Bill, which is the length of time that an animal must be detained before it can be sold. One difficulty created by the 1971 Act is that it requires the person who detains a horse to look after it for up to 14 days. During that time, they are responsible for its welfare and for preventing it from straying, and they are liable for any costs incurred. The Bill would permit the disposal of horses after the equivalent of four working days, rather than the present 14 days. We think that four working days strikes a good balance: it is lower than the figure of seven days that applies in Wales and, to respond to the point made by my hon. and learned Friend Sir Edward Garnier, it will significantly reduce the cost to both local authorities and landowners of intervening in such cases, because they can sell or dispose of an animal after only four working days.
There are consequential amendments that must be made to the 1971 Act, one of which relates to the point that was put to me by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough about the requirement to give the police notice that one has detained a horse within 24 hours. In addition to the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, it is worth pointing out that currently, notice must be given within three days. We think that it is proportionate to reduce the deadline to 24 hours, given that we have condensed the period of detention. There is a requirement to give notice to the police so that if they receive a report of a horse going missing, they can reconcile it with the report of fly-grazing, and thereby reunite ponies and horses with their legitimate owners who have just managed to mislay them.
I am grateful to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer for clearing up the point about the police. When the Bill becomes an Act, would it be worth issuing guidance to local authorities and police authorities on informing local hunts of the existence or whereabouts of detained horses, because they have facilities to help with the removal of horses, dead and alive?
That is something that may be considered when the Bill is, I hope, enacted.
The animal welfare codes recommend that a horse that is being kept should be tended to at least once a day to check that its welfare needs are met. We feel that the 24-hour notice period is reasonable because the legitimate owner of an animal would realise that they did not have the animal quite quickly. If the police are notified within 24 hours and there is a four-working-day period of detention, it will enable them to reunite the legitimate owners of a horse with their animal.
In common with the 1971 Act, when a detained horse is sold and there is money left over from the sale, any excess money, after the costs of the sale and of keeping the horse are deducted, can be claimed by the horse owner. For the most part, the horses that we are talking about will probably be of such low value that it is unlikely that there will be any money left after the sale.
The final element that I want to touch on relates to the concerns of welfare charities about the ambiguity of the definition of “stray” horses. Although the position has never been tested in the courts, the Bill seeks to address the concern that the 1971 Act is not designed to deal with deliberately placed horses. Clarifying the definition by making it clear that it includes horses that are there without legal authority is an important step forward.
My hon. Friend may well have the opportunity to raise those points as the Bill progresses.
The Bill represents an important step forward in promoting more responsible standards of horse ownership. It will uphold the need for owners to pay proper attention to their horses’ welfare and to avoid the burdens that fly-grazing imposes on public safety and private and public property.
I want to return to a point that I raised in the last debate on this subject. We must not lose sight of the potential to use the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to deal with this issue. In addition to the changes that the Bill will make to the 1971 Act, it is possible for local authorities to use a more streamlined antisocial behaviour measure under the 2014 Act, which came into force only this week. Local authorities and the police can issue a community protection notice against fly-grazers without having to apply to the courts. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer said, we recognise that in most cases the owner of the fly-grazing horse would have to be known, and in many cases that is not possible to establish without some form of investigation. To return to the point that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough made, however, it is important that we do something about owners who abdicate their responsibility and neglect their horses. The Bill will give local authorities the ability to pursue irresponsible horse owners. Two prolific and persistent fly-grazers have recently been issued with antisocial behaviour orders under the old-style measures, so although we accept that there are difficulties, we still believe that we should act.
Finally, I return to the extension of the Bill’s provisions to private land, which several Members have mentioned. Bearing in mind the significant effect of fly-grazing on private land, the Government support such an extension, which would be consistent with the scope of the 1971 Act. It will require the approval of the House for amending the scope and long title of the Bill, but given the importance of doing so, the Government are happy to support that on this occasion. Such amendments would give private landowners and occupiers the benefits of the changes to the 1971 Act that local authorities will gain in respect of public places. I can confirm that we will therefore table a motion to direct the Public Bill Committee that it can consider amendments to the Bill that would enable its provisions to apply on private land.
I believe that the changes will be welcomed by local authorities, landowners and the animal welfare charities that have done much to highlight the issue in recent years. I congratulate again my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, who looks set to be more successful with his private Member’s Bill than I was with mine some years ago. I am happy to confirm the Government’s support for the Bill, and I wish him the very best of luck in taking it through Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (