I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We are seeing horses being tethered all across the country, potentially leaving them open to neglect, cruelty and abuse, and potentially posing a danger to the people around them, too.
Tethering is not deemed enough of a breach of the Animal Welfare Act to allow horse charities to intervene. A tethered horse also does not have the freedom to interact with its own species, as the Act says it should. Leaving horses isolated has been shown to increase stress levels and stress-related hormones, which can cause them to display stereotypical behaviours that cause physical and psychological harm.
Stereotypical behaviours are strongly linked to isolated horses; stabled horses tend to perform behaviours that engage with the stable around them, such as crib biting or weaving. Horses that are tethered long term have a total lack of environmental stimuli, so they are much more likely to develop stereotypical behaviours such as pacing or self-mutilation. This clearly raises questions about the clarity of the existing legislation and regulations on the grounds for removing a horse from a tether and on the capacity of law enforcers to act.
Long-term tethering is in direct conflict with legislation, yet in many instances authorities have not felt that the Animal Welfare Act is strong enough grounds to rescue horses, despite the obvious suffering. It is therefore my belief, and the belief of the charity that initiated this campaign, that the Act needs to be amended to state explicitly what constitutes inappropriate tethering.
One of the reasons why this is such an emotive subject is the location of tethered horses. As I said earlier, the main purpose of long-term tethering is free grazing, so horses end up on any strip of grass available, with the roadside, grass verges and even the middle of roundabouts, as we have seen in south Gloucestershire, being popular choices. It goes without saying that this is not remotely appropriate. Horses are easily spooked by traffic, and if the tether were to fail, there would be a loose horse on the road.
Advances in equine and animal science mean that we are much more able to understand what constitutes poor welfare, but our laws have not caught up with that deeper understanding. When I met HorseWorld staff, who are so passionate about what they do, I was told about a pregnant mare that escaped her tether and got on to a busy A road, where she narrowly avoided being hit by a lorry. Police had to attend the scene to monitor the horse until HorseWorld could assemble a team at 3 am. If the tethering laws were stricter, the lives of the mare and her unborn foal would not have been risked, a lorry driver would not have had to make an emergency stop on a main road and numerous hours of police time would not have been wasted.
That leads me on to my second point, which has been raised by other equine welfare charities in a number of reports: only appointed animal welfare officers or police constables have the authority to seize an animal. However, councils are in no way mandated to employ an animal welfare officer, so many choose not to do so. Our understanding is that as many as 40% of councils do not employ an animal welfare officer. In these areas, the police are the only organisation that has the power to rescue an animal from a situation where its welfare is compromised. I therefore ask the Minister to update us on what steps he is taking to gain a deeper understanding of the depth of the problem. The result of this situation is that police time is being spent attending horse rescues, which often just involves hours spent holding a horse at the side of the road when it had got on to the road. Only a police constable, once contacted, can authorise a charity to remove a horse. It is clear from written parliamentary questions I have tabled that the Government have no idea about the amount of police time that is spent dealing with these incidents. Clearly, police time can be better spent in the community. Having clarity over who should be dealing with equine welfare complaints will reduce the time that it takes to deal with them and will save the lives of animals. The councils that do employ animal welfare officers need to ensure that they are trained to handle horses. That could easily be achieved by collaborating with voluntary organisations.
Let me now address what needs to change. In the past, DEFRA Ministers have said that the current legislation appropriately meets the needs of tethered horses. The 19,000 people who signed a petition to get the tethered horses rescued from Rovers Way in Cardiff would disagree. The 12,000 people who have emailed their MPs about getting tethering laws tightened would disagree. I also think that all the experts who have been in touch with me and the voluntary organisations calling for stricter laws on tethering would also disagree.
There are therefore four changes that I would like to see incorporated into the 2006 Act to improve the lives of horses. The first is that there should be a 24-hour legal limit on how long horses can be tethered for. That is important, because DEFRA’s code of practice states that long-term tethering is inappropriate. That needs to be clarified, backed up and given status in law. The second is that there needs to be a complete ban on tethering horses on the roadside or in dangerous locations. The third is that if a tether is someone’s only method of keeping an animal, they should not be allowed to keep that animal. The fourth is to make it a mandatory duty for local councils to employ an animal welfare officer or to ensure that arrangements are in place with neighbouring authorities to ensure that those officers are in place.
There is currently too much room for interpretation within the legislation. It needs to be clear-cut that long-term tethering infringes on equine welfare, leaving horses at risk of harm and suffering. We need to give the relevant authorities the means and confidence to rescue horses that desperately need protection. We need to step up and take action to protect these most majestic and iconic animals. Making these changes will protect thousands of horses across our country. Minister, please help us and break the chain.