It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing such an important debate. I would also like to explain that I might not be able to stay for the full length of the debate, as I face the not unusual House of Commons problem of having to be in two places at the same time. However, I would like to use the minutes that you have allotted me, Mr Hollobone, to make a few points.
As the hon. Member for East Hampshire rightly said, although the problem of abandoned horses might be thought predominantly to affect rural areas, that is certainly not the whole case. I can assure the House that it is a significant problem in some urban areas, such as my own black country constituency. In many parts of the black country, specifically around the Bilston and Bradley areas of my constituency, it is common to see horses grazing on abandoned former industrial land or small plots of common land. The state of the horses varies. Sometimes they are in a decent state and looked after, but sometimes they are not and are in a very poor state. Sometimes they are tethered, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they can break free and be found wandering round housing estates, going into people’s gardens and causing at least a nuisance and in some cases real danger.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, a fellow black country MP, for giving way. Does he share the experience that I have had in my constituency, where these poor animals have been found dead, still tethered to the rope that chained them?
The hon. Gentleman is right that sometimes the horses die, particularly in winter when they are not fed during harsh weather. The problem is difficult to tackle on two different levels because of what I call the ownership issue. By ownership, I mean that it is difficult to establish who owns the horse. Even if you can establish that, it is difficult to get that person to accept responsibility for the horse’s welfare. In theory, under the law, horses should be microchipped and have passports that enable them to be identified, but the Minister will be aware that the law is routinely breached and ignored. I have been told by the animal welfare officer at Wolverhampton city council that, in her estimate, the vast majority of abandoned horses in my constituency have no microchip. The system is therefore simply not operating.
The first ownership problem is that it is difficult for the authorities to know to whom the horses belong. The other problem is that they are moved around at short notice, leaving a place and returning to it, which makes it difficult to track them. Another aspect of the ownership problem is that it is not clear who, in law, is responsible for policing the issue, removing horses and dealing with the problem. The police tend not to get involved unless the horse is on the highway, and practice among local authorities varies greatly. Some try to tackle the problem with energy and resources, but some do very little. The owners are aware of that and can take advantage of the situation by moving the horses around from one piece of open ground to another. Horse owners know that councils’ attitudes differ in that way.
The part of my constituency that is most affected by the problem is close to the boundaries of Wolverhampton, Dudley and Sandwell. It is quite easy for horses to be moved, and that makes enforcement more difficult. Sandwell is next to Wolverhampton, and its council estimates that the cost of a removal—for bureaucracy and transport, as well as legal and animal welfare costs—can be up to £1,500. Some councils have tried to tackle the problem by providing grazing space and charging owners to put horses there. For responsible owners, that may work. However, irresponsible owners currently get a free good by putting horses where they should not; they are unlikely to queue up to pay £10 a week or more for what they currently get for nothing.
Another issue is the resources of local authorities. I am not making a partisan point, but we know that money is tight for councils. Wolverhampton city council has one animal welfare officer, who works part time. She is responsible for pet shops, domestically kept animals, the few farms in the city council area and the huge issue of abandoned or illegally tethered horses. I spoke to her earlier today, and by lunch time she had had three reports from the public of concern about abandoned horses. To expect her, on her own and working part time, to deal effectively with the issue alongside her other responsibilities is clearly absurd, and it will not work.
Even for officers who have enough time, another issue is at play, which we should be honest about: fear. Although the horse owners may not want to declare themselves, those involved in removing horses fear reprisals by them. It cannot be right that those who are empowered to deal with the situation, albeit on an imperfect and incomplete legal basis, should be inhibited from carrying through their powers by fear of reprisals. We would not tolerate that state of affairs in other walks of life, and we should not tolerate it in the one we are debating. The effect of what I have outlined is a problem that has gone on for years without a proper solution and without anyone getting a proper grip on it. It is a significant animal welfare problem that causes the public disturbance and distress. We cannot go on as we are.
What, then, is to be done? The current law is inadequate. There is a right of removal under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but only if the horses are in poor or severe condition, which is not always the case. Different provisions apply to public and private land, and there are different approaches for the highway or common land. All that needs to be straightened out and simplified. I do not know whether what the Welsh Assembly Government are doing is perfect, but at least animal welfare groups, landowners and the general public have welcomed it. The Minister should endeavour to clarify and simplify the law to make it easier to remove the animals.
The simplification should include introducing easier powers of removal from common land; minimising cost and delay in dealing with some of the issues that the hon. Member for East Hampshire raised; and removing the problem of proving ownership—in fact, why not reverse the burden of proof and ask those who claim ownership of the horse to prove it, rather than charging local authorities with running around trying to find out who owns it? The changes should also include improving animal welfare and giving confidence to the public. The problem is growing, and may grow further because of what has happened in Wales. The fact that solving it has been too difficult so far should not prevent us from putting our heads together and trying to come up with a better system.
Hansard [Westminster Hall] [26/11/13]