Sport Horse Industry: Import and Export Controls

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 30 April 2024.

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Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the impact of import and export controls on the sport horse industry.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Caroline. Horses are among the most travelled animals in the world, and in the UK we are lucky to have a thriving competition and breeding industry. My constituency of North Shropshire is home to a significant amount of that activity in the sport horse sector, with centres of excellence for both artificial insemination of mares and competition training.

Implementation of new import controls went live today. They have been causing consternation in the industry, with an additional issue around export controls for live animals and animal products, which are also having a significant impact. I will come to each in turn. I note that the issue of export controls is for the Department for Business and Trade and not necessarily for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. When I sought this debate last week, the former did not want to take it and advised that I speak to DEFRA.

I will focus a bit more on import controls because that is the Minister’s area of expertise. I hope he will take on board some of my points about export, and work with his colleagues in the Department for Business and Trade to consider some of the challenges being faced in the industry in that area.

First, on imports, we all recognise that there is a serious risk of disease, and that biosecurity is a top priority. I am not here to suggest otherwise. More than 95% of sport horse mares are artificially inseminated using chilled equine semen. It is important to have checks on that, so that we do not import unwanted diseases into the country. However, it is important to remember that these are high-health animals that are carefully monitored here and on the continent. There has never been an incident of disease imported in this manner. When looking at the type of checks that might be suitable, we can take that into account and consider what is proportionate to the risks. The logistical challenge of classifying those products as high risk at the border control point has the potential to cause havoc in the importing process.

I am grateful to Ministers in DEFRA, including Lord Douglas-Miller, who met me and one of my constituents who is affected by this problem. A pilot scheme is being run from today, with checks on those products carried out by the inseminating vet rather than at the border control point. I hope that pilot is successful, because it would remove some of the logistical problems of importing a product that has to be used within 48 hours of collection. It is collected in Europe and it takes time to transport it to the UK. The logistics of getting it to its courier and destination are very tight. The pilot is a welcome development and I thank the Department for listening carefully.

It is important to note that getting to this point has been chaotic and that the change of process was made with only weeks to go. I understand, from speaking to the British Horse Council earlier this week, that that process is being piloted at East Midlands, though not at Stansted airport, where a smaller proportion of these goods come through. We now have a dual process, which is not ideal because there is scope for confusion and for the process to break down at Stansted. Businesses affected by this problem have wasted considerable time in getting ready, and expended much worry over the potential outcome, so the process has not been ideal.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Lady is outlining a specific case, but we in Northern Ireland also have a specific case, which the Minister will know, in terms of the protocol and the Windsor framework, which has curtailed the movement of livestock within the UK. Does the hon. Lady agree that while her case is specific to her and her constituents, we have a specific case too? Might the Minister in his answer also consider how movement of livestock, and particularly of horses, from Northern Ireland to Great Britain can be addressed?

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As always, it is highly relevant to the issue. There is an issue around Northern Ireland, because there is a risk that with different controls we compromise our biosecurity and that people use Northern Ireland as a back door to circumvent those controls. It is therefore important that we have consistency between all the devolved nations, including Northern Ireland.

We are talking about an £8 billion industry in the UK, so it is not such a niche issue and it is well worth ensuring that the industry can operate effectively. We have had a lack of clarity on charges. It is my understanding that both East Midlands and Stansted border control points are not Government-run and that there is a lack of clarity about the level of charges. Again, it is difficult for businesses to plan for a big change that is coming in if they do not know exactly what it will involve.

A lot of the effort has focused on the import of germinal products, but we have stallions in this country whose products are being exported. If we streamline and make the process of import cost-effective, which is very important, we are unfortunately putting our exporters at a disadvantage compared with European producers. This is therefore the point when I ask the Minister to work closely with the Department for Business and Trade to see if we can streamline the export process and put our own stallion breeders on a level playing field.

One of the reasons there has been concern about the process is that vets did not have access to the TRACES system—a database maintained by the EU and used to monitor health and travel documents in 90 countries. Will the Minister clarify whether the UK systems will be able to interface with that system and whether that has been properly tested? Also, out of interest, why did we not stick with the TRACES system, which might have reduced some of the cost in the process of moving horses in and out of the country?

We have talked about germinal products, but I also want to talk about live horses. As I mentioned at the beginning, sport horses are some of the best-travelled animals in the world. They go to Europe frequently to compete, and this is essential for breeders to prove their breeding and competition credentials; thousands of horses go every year. A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky to meet Safira from Springfield Stud in North Shropshire, who has been selected for the Brazilian Olympic team. She travels backwards and forwards to Europe regularly and it costs hundreds of pounds each time because she has to have export documentation and a veterinary check. That process is not streamlined and it is expensive.

That is also an issue for the thoroughbred industry, about which I confess I know less. Thoroughbred horses have to be naturally covered, which means a lot of international movement is required in the industry to ensure gene pool diversity, leading to a huge associated cost every time a horse moves in and out of the country. There has been an estimated 18% reduction in imports of thoroughbred horses, which shows the scale of the problem and its potential impact. There is also evidence of a reduction in the number of European horses coming here. UK businesses, such as Springfield Stud in my constituency, are considering moving to northern Europe to avoid some of the cost and red tape involved. That is hugely damaging to the industry and has the potential to affect North Shropshire in particular.

I want to return to the point that, in this debate, we are discussing high-health animals, whose health is continuously monitored. Many are held in quarantine before they are used to produce semen, and they must have high levels of documentation and accreditation to go and compete with other horses across Europe, so the risk around them is potentially quite low. I therefore ask the Minister: how can we slim down the process and reduce the cost and red tape involved so that breeders stay in Britain and continue to effectively compete in Europe?

The identification process, I am informed, is one such area for improvement. There are about 70 passport-issuing bodies in the UK feeding into a central database, and because there are so many bodies involved, the data is inevitably of variable quality. My understanding is that the Government have accepted that this needs to be simplified and improved and the industry is waiting on the statutory instrument needed to do it, but it has been repeatedly delayed. I wonder whether the Minister could give us a date on which that change will come in, so that we can see a more streamlined database for health and travel documentation.

I also want to touch on the point that Jim Shannon made about the importance of consistency. My understanding is that Wales is set to follow the same set of rules as England. Obviously, that is very welcome, but it is very important that the Government work with their Scottish counterparts to ensure that we have consistency throughout the whole United Kingdom and that we do not see people trying to get through loopholes and back doors because of a lack of joined-up thinking. When that happens, our biosecurity is put at risk. It is important to ensure that we have the same types of controls across the whole country.

We have a threat to the efficient operation of a valuable and thriving UK industry that we are all proud of. I have a particular interest in it, because eventing and show-jumping horses are important and thriving in North Shropshire. DEFRA is moving in the right direction on some of these issues, but the process so far has been more chaotic than we would like. We want the Department for Business and Trade to be involved as well, because horses move backwards and forwards and we do not want to disadvantage our own breeders.

Before I finish, I would like to thank David Mountford from the British Horse Council, Claire Sheppard from the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and Jan Rogers of the Horse Trust for making sure I was well informed before this debate. I also thank my own constituents, Tullis Matson from Stallion AI and John Chambers from Springfield Stud, for taking the time to explain their concerns and their issues to me in so much detail.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 11:11, 30 April 2024

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Caroline. I also pay tribute to Helen Morgan for securing this important debate. I recognise the great economic, social and cultural benefits of the sport horse industry to this country, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Government’s support for it.

On the introduction of the new import controls under the border target operating model, the introduction of biosecurity controls on imports is not optional. Now that we have moved away from the EU’s rigid biosecurity, surveillance and reporting systems, we are responsible for protecting our own biosecurity from threats such as foot and mouth disease, African swine fever and the African horse sickness virus, which we must remain alert to despite it never having reached these shores. Otherwise, such threats could devastate UK industries and cause significant damage to the environment, public health and the wider economy. We remember the impact of foot and mouth in 2001, which cost British businesses nearly £13 billion in 2022 prices. It caused massive disruption to many industries, including the sport horse industry.

Biosecurity controls are also essential to protect our exports and international trading interests. Our trading partners want to be reassured that we maintain the highest biosecurity standards. Maintaining our reputation for high biosecurity standards is in the interests of the sport horse industry, to ensure that we can continue to move first-class animals and germinal products in and out of the country.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border

I congratulate Helen Morgan on securing this important debate. I declare my interest as a veterinary surgeon. The Minister will be aware that a couple of years ago the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published our report on the movement of animals across borders. There is a balance between allowing the smooth movement of animals and protecting the biosecurity of our animals in the UK. We looked at the key issues of trying to replicate the tripartite arrangement, which allowed for the smooth movement of high-health horses between the UK, France and Ireland, and progressing the digital identification system for horses, both of which would allow smooth but safe movement. Government progress in those areas would help to protect our industries and our biosecurity.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his work in this subject area. He is very informed on these matters and the House benefits a great deal from his expertise. We will continue to work with the sector. We want to have as much freedom of movement as possible, but in a way that protects our biosecurity. I am sure there will be more opportunity for us to benefit from my hon. Friend’s expertise as we find solutions to the challenges.

The new controls begin today. They require high-risk consignments, including equine germinal products from the EU, to enter GB via an appropriately designated border control post, where 100% documentary, 100% identity and 1% to 5% physical checks are undertaken. We are aware that the sport horse industry and its representatives, including the hon. Member for North Shropshire, have been concerned about the controls coming in during the peak season for the import of equine germplasm. We have been glad of their engagement on this topic and for their having drawn their concerns to our attention so that we can address them and make sure we get the implementation right.

The import of equine germinal products provides for genetic diversity and the rapid genetic improvement of British breeding horses. Using the chilled rather than frozen product enhances conception rates, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire pointed out. We know that the movement of these goods is highly time sensitive, if they are to be successful, so we have to consider appropriate measures that work for the sector. We have considered that in the context of the new BTOM controls.

Thanks to representations from the hon. Member for North Shropshire and others, we are aware that on some import routes logistical challenges mean that some checks required by the BTOM cannot currently be undertaken within the required timeframe for the products to reach their destination mare. DEFRA officials have therefore worked closely with the main importers of chilled equine germinal products, port health authorities and the British Equine Veterinary Association to develop and secure approval for a temporary contingency measure with an optional additional adaptation. That will facilitate trade while maintaining essential biosecurity controls.

The contingency measure temporarily reduces the requirement for official identity checks from 100% to 20%, and allows them to take place at a border control post or at the destination, using the optional temporary adaptation pilot process with the BEVA. As a result, the consignments, which also benefit from 100% documentary checks before arrival in GB, complete official import controls in the minimum time possible.

On the movement of live horses—which the hon. Member for North Shropshire was keen to address—in planning and implementing controls we aim to reduce any disruption or administrative burden as far as possible. We recognise that in the case of the sport horse industry we can often rely on robust industry processes that are in place to assure the health of the animal. For that reason, when new border controls on live animal imports come into force, we have developed and agreed, with the help of industry, an exemption for certain horses that meet a definition of high health. Verified equines used in racing, competition, breeding and sales can all qualify for that facilitation if arriving from the EU and sanitary group A countries.

We estimate that approximately two thirds of equine imports will be eligible for the exemption. They will be cleared for import on the basis of a documentary check, and their identity as a high-health horse will be verified with industry databases. That provision will allow them to avoid attendance at a border control post for a physical inspection unless a concern raised during the documentary check triggers such an inspection.

We are also focused on ensuring that the border control post infrastructure, which we will have in place for equines that must come through one, works as well as it can for the animals and their requirements. It is intended that the existing airport BCPs will be supplemented with Government-run BCPs at Holyhead and at Sevington in Kent, which will have the additional impact of assisting animals transferring from the island of Ireland and our friends in Northern Ireland. We are confident that we will have sufficient infrastructure, given the planned exemption for high-health horses, but we will continue to test that position over the intervening months.

We have already been fortunate to have had the benefit of the expertise within the industry to help to shape the physical design of the equine facilities at Sevington, and we have made many adaptations because of that advice. That co-design will undoubtedly make the site more effective in the way it operates. We hope to continue that joint work to test and challenge the operational procedures at the border control post in relation to the way horses travel to the site and are handled and inspected. Of course, that will be an area of focus for our work over the coming months.

We continue to welcome the open and supportive dialogue that we have with the sport horse industry. I again thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire for securing the debate. This is an important set of issues, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss them.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.