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Crabb: A fairer deal for rural businesses

Speech to the House of Commons.

"My Bill would amend the Animals Act 1971 by limiting its scope to dangerous species and, particularly, to dangerous individual animals, and for connected purposes.

There are many Members on both sides of the House who enjoy, or whose families enjoy, horse riding. I am always delighted to be told by colleagues of their excellent holidays on the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast, and I know of several who have enjoyed riding in the county of Pembrokeshire, which is home to many good stables and livery yards.

In the past 12 months, an estimated 4.3 million people throughout the United Kingdom from all social backgrounds will have ridden on at least one occasion, and more than £730 million will have been spent on riding lessons.

The British equine industry is now worth around £4 billion each year to our economy, yet it is facing huge pressures as a result of the enormous increase in insurance costs which now make running an equestrian centre a very challenging proposition.

The Association of British Riding Schools tells me that, in the past four years alone, 650 riding schools have closed down as a result of insurance costs. Some riding centres have been refused insurance cover altogether.

At the heart of this problem of soaring costs is an unfair liability regime brought about by a badly drafted Act of Parliament, and there is an urgent need for clarification of the law if more businesses are not to fail.

Horse riding is under threat from the pernicious reach of the compensation culture, and it is the purpose of my Bill to seek to tackle this problem. In introducing the Bill, I seek to clarify the scope of the Animals Act 1971 in respect of liability for harm caused by non-dangerous animals.

A House of Lords legal judgment in the 2003 case of Mirhavedy v. Henley widened the scope of that Act so that strict, non-fault-based liability can be faced by keepers of any animal which can display dangerous behaviour at particular times or in particular circumstances.

The Act originally intended that this strict liability regime should apply only to the owners of dangerous animals—dangerous animals being wild animals such as lions, tigers, deadly snakes or insects, or a specific psychotic domestic animal. However, the effect of the 2003 judgment is that strict liability now applies to the keeper of non-dangerous animals behaving in a normal way where a pure accident occurs.

This is why stable owners can now be held liable for a horse that bolts when it is spooked. The impact of the 2003 judgment will not stop at the equine sector; it could affect owners of all livestock. Farmers, for example, could be held liable if a cow acts aggressively to protect a calf and injures a dog walker.

It might be helpful if I take a moment to explain in more detail the legal background to this matter. Section 2(2) of the 1971 Act addresses damage caused by non-dangerous animals and is at the heart of the problem. That section has been repeatedly criticised for its opaque language, and there is widespread agreement that the wording is unclear and needs to be changed.

Section 2(2) places strict liability on the keeper of non-dangerous animals that cause harm where the following points are satisfied: first, the damage is of a kind that the animal, unless restrained, was likely to cause, or that, if caused by the animal, was likely to be severe; secondly, and crucially, the likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to characteristics of the animal that are not normally found in animals of the same species, or are not normally so found except at particular times or in particular circumstances; and thirdly, those characteristics were known to the keeper.

In the case of Mirhavedy v. Henley the court was deciding the meaning of the second condition and whether it referred just to a particularly dangerous individual animal or, in addition, to a perfectly normal animal that was displaying dangerous characteristics typical of the species at particular times or in particular circumstances.

Clearly, the latter interpretation is of much broader scope, and that interpretation was ultimately favoured by the House of Lords by a majority decision. In that case, the Henleys were found not to have been negligent in an accident in which their horses had been spooked and had escaped on to a road causing serious injury to Mr. Mirhavedy, who had been driving on that road; but they were found to be liable to pay for the harm caused.

That judgment, and that interpretation of the Act, is now having a negative impact on the equine sector. For example, Mrs. Ingrid Evans in my constituency, who runs a riding school at Llanwnda stables near Fishguard, has seen her insurance premium rise from £858 in 2001 to more than £7,000 a year today. She has had to increase her charges to try to cover the costs, but is concerned that she is now pricing out many low-income people from enjoying the sport and recreation.

The Country Land and Business Association, whose lawyers have drafted my Bill, and to which I pay tribute for its tireless campaign for a change in the law, has a member who runs a riding school and faced a claim under the Act.

That resulted from an accident during a riding lesson when a third party frightened the horse accidentally. Again, there was no fault, but there was liability. That has created enormous problems for that riding school in obtaining insurance at a premium that could be afforded. It is now clear that insurance is getting more expensive and harder to obtain right across the equine sector, even for those who have not had an actual claim against them.

Hon. Members may be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury introduced a similar Bill under the ten-minute rule last year: the Accidents Involving Animals (Strict Liability) Bill.

That Bill also sought to amend the 1971 Act following the 2003 judgment. It failed to get the necessary time, but I am pleased that my hon. Friend has expressed his support for my Bill.

My Bill is different from his, however, in that it does not seek to make it a defence in law for the owner of an animal involved in an accident to show that he took all reasonable steps to keep the animal in a secure enclosure. Instead, it seeks to refocus the scope of the Act by clarifying the language of section 2(2)(b). The reasons for that are twofold.

First, the 1971 Act is about strict liability and, quite rightly, there should be no reasonable defence to strict liability. If a person owns a dangerous animal such as a poisonous snake that harms a third party, it is right that that person should be strictly liable and have no defence of reasonable care. That was the intention behind the 1971 Act.

Secondly, with a defence of reasonable care, no insurer will risk going to court and the defence not being accepted. Insurers will continue to settle out of court, keeping insurance premiums as high as they are now.

Under my Bill, however, riding schools, farmers and pet owners will be subject to the usual common law negligence and health and safety laws, meaning that if an owner or business has taken all possible safeguards they are unlikely to be blamed for an accident. That would encourage owners to take out third-party insurance but would remove liability for genuine accidents. Owners of dangerous animals would, quite rightly, continue to be liable.

I am delighted that the Government have signalled their support for the principles of my Bill. I am also encouraged that an early-day motion that I tabled on the matter during the 2005-06 Session attracted more than 150 signatures, and that that same early-day motion, which has been re-tabled this Session by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is also attracting wide cross-party support.

I am grateful to all those Members who have told me in the past few days that they are very supportive of what I am seeking to do, and to those hon. Members on both sides of the House who are co-sponsoring the Bill.

As well as the support of the Country Land and Business Association, the Bill has the support of the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, the British Equine Veterinary Association, the National Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance.

The Government are right to state their support for the equine sector in this country. That sector is not only an important and growing part of the rural economy and an avenue of potential diversification for farmers, but it plays a vital part in ensuring health and recreation is enjoyed by the nation, particularly younger people.

The House will be aware of the many excellent schemes that provide riding opportunities for disabled people and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such initiatives may be at risk unless action is taken soon.

The unintended result of the 1971 Act has been unfair damage to rural businesses, recreation and tourism. My Bill would redress that injustice while ensuring that those whose non-dangerous animals caused harm due to their negligence could still be held to account. I commend this Bill to the House."

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