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Sovereignty asks, "Will the prohibition on live horse exports for meat now be scrapped by the UK government?"

EU rules requiring Shetland ponies to have ID so that the French can eat horsemeat are offensive and could close riding schools and sanctuaries.
by Philip Johnston
The Daily Telegraph
2nd February 2004, p.19

If you are among the one million people in the country who owns a horse, a pony or even a donkey, you should already know that by the end of June you must have a passport for the animal. If you are one of the many millions who do not, you will probably need to look twice at that opening sentence.

A passport? For a horse? Bizarre as it seems, the Government introduced regulations shortly before Christmas requiring all equines to be in possession of a passport, whether they are travelling or not. It is, effectively, a form of ID.

In the horse world, the issue has been a hot topic for a year or more. Jokes about how to fit the animal into the photo-booth rapidly gave way to anger over the costs and bureaucracy involved. Already, organisations such as the Horse Passport Agency have sprung up offering the required document to owners who will be criminalised if they fail to comply.

There is a fine of up to £5,000 and, for a second offence, one month's imprisonment. Imagine it. You could go to jail because you forgot, or declined, to get the Shetland pony at the bottom of your garden an ID card.

You may well ask why they are needed at all since racehorses and competition horses already require some sort of identity document to travel overseas. The story, unsurprisingly, begins in Brussels, where regulations were introduced 10 years ago to ensure that horses treated with certain drugs do not enter the human food chain.

Since the British do not eat horsemeat, the UK obtained a "derogation" that ran out last year. But instead of demanding another, the Government said it was legally bound to introduce compulsory passports for all equines.

So every owner, whether of the oldest nag in the farthest field or the proudest hunter in the stableyard, will have to sketch their animal, note down its identifying markings and send this information -- known as a "silhouette" -- to an approved agency, which will charge between £20 and £30 for the document.

This may not seem like a lot of money; but, a week or so ago, the Government further decreed that owners should not identify their own horses. Instead, the "silhouette" will have to be completed by a vet, who will probably charge £30 a go.

So a passport could end up costing £50 or more. For someone who owns a riding school, or a donkey sanctuary, and is already finding it hard to make ends meet, this will be a crippling cost.

James Gray, the Tory MP for North Wiltshire and president of the Association of British Riding Schools, said around 200 schools close down every year and he feared the new passport could spell the end for many more.

The Government maintains it has consulted widely and has the support of august bodies, such as the British Horse Society, one of a number of groups empowered to issue the passports. But Mr Gray says there is outright hostility among ordinary owners and weekend riders represented by the ABRS, the Pony Club, the Donkey Breed Association, the Shetland Pony Association and many others.

The regulations will be enforced by trading standards officers with the power to enter stables and fields to see whether the horse matches the description on the passport. "The thought of a new army of jobsworths stalking the countryside checking the paperwork of horses fills me with dismay," said Mr Gray. "It is a bureaucratic solution to a problem that doesn't even exist."

What possible justification is there for this law that will cost the industry millions of pounds to implement and could send small businesses to the wall?

Alun Michael, the "minister for the horse" at the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, said it would establish a database "which would be to the advantage of the horse industry in the event of horse diseases becoming a problem in this country". Asked in the Commons to identify what disease he had in mind, he failed to offer an example.

Some in the industry say there are spin-off advantages, such as allowing potential buyers to check whether an animal has been stolen and discovering how many horses and ponies there are in the country. But the principle reason is set out on Defra's own website: "It will satisfy the European Commission that the UK has a viable method of identifying horses that have been treated with medicines that must not be administered to food producing animals."

Since only a few thousand horses are slaughtered in this country and exported to Europe for food, why not limit the requirement to them? Why do a million owners have to go through this rigmarole because other countries have a taste for horsemeat?

Mr Gray -- who is tabling two Commons motions today opposed to the regulations -- says the Government intends to remove a long-standing prohibition on exporting live horses other than high-value racehorses or stud animals. Combined with the passport, he suspects many more British horses will now be sold abroad for food, which is anathema to a country that is home to one quarter of all the horses in the EU.

There is a wider issue here about how we are governed and the cavalier use of legislation. This measure was brought in by way of a Statutory Instrument and was already law before MPs even had a chance to pass judgment. Moreover, the drafting was found to be seriously defective by a parliamentary monitoring committee, something the Government acknowledged.

In addition, the regulations covered only tame animals and therefore did not include thousands of semi-wild ponies on the West Country moors and in the New Forest for which separate arrangements have been made.

Yet instead of withdrawing them, ministers simply placed the flawed regulations on the Statute Book while promising to replace them with an unflawed version at a later date in order to "avoid confusion".

As Mr Bumble would have said, this law is an ass. And it does not need a passport to be identified as one.

The following letter was published in The Daily Telegraph on 10 February 2004

SIR - Alun Michael MP (letter, Feb 8) is way off beam on the question of horse passports. He argues that they are necessary because "if we do not have a system of control for veterinary medicines it creates welfare problems for the horse industry". So how does he think the horse industry has got by without equine passports for the past hundred years?

He says: "There is absolutely no connection between horse exports and equine passports." But the only point of the passports is to prevent horses on dangerous medication getting into the human food chain, and this won't happen unless they are exported.

But his most suspect proposition is this: "The Government has no intention of weakening this country's controls on the export of horses." Maybe not, but the EU Commission has, and the Government may be powerless to prevent it.

Currently, we have the Minimum Value Rule, which ensures that low-value British horses and ponies cannot be exported for meat. The Commission, however, believes that this rule contravenes the EU's single market rules. Perhaps Mr Michael hasn't been briefed on this, but Defra is trying to agree an alternative provision with the EU. According to sources in the industry, the latest draft wording fails to provide the same export protection as current rules.

This horse passport is a typical EU measure: a bureaucratic sledgehammer to crack a tiny nut. It will be enormously expensive. It will threaten the inability of riding schools and donkey sanctuaries without making any significant contribution to animal welfare.

Roger Helmer MEP (Con)
Lutterworth, Leics

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