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Which way will horse owners vote?

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01 April 2010, at 1:00am

Veterinary Practice reports on this year’s National Equine Forum and the issues raised.

BRITAIN’s main political parties will be chasing the horse owners’ vote in the forthcoming General Election. 

Opposition agriculture spokesman Mr Jim Paice laid out the Conservative party’s plans for changes affecting the sector in a presentation to the National Equine Forum in London on 4th March. 

Mr Paice has a long-standing interest in equine issues and is MP for the South East Cambridgeshire constituency that includes Newmarket, the country’s foremost centre for thoroughbred breeding and training. Mr Paice said his colleagues at Westminster have recognised the growing political and economic importance of the equine sector. Riding horses has surpassed fishing as the most popular recreational sport with 2 million people in Britain taking part at least once a month. The horse sector is also a major contributor to the UK economy, providing about 250,000 jobs in an estimated 19,000 different businesses.

Free vote on hunting 

Reaffirming his party’s policy on the most controversial issue affecting the horse world, Mr Paice said that if they win the election, the Conservatives will allow MPs a free vote on whether to revoke the ban on hunting with hounds. 

He noted the hunting community’s attempts to develop a form of self-regulation to prevent the sort of welfare issues cited by their opponents and suggested that if the current legislation is repealed, this would be an essential element of any future arrangements. 

Mr Paice warned equine organisations, however, that if they want to influence the policies of any future Tory government they would need to reach a consensus among themselves before attempting to lobby ministers. With so many disparate bodies involved in the horse world there was a risk that they could send confused or even contradictory messages, he said. 

Another highly contentious issue for horse owners is the current administration’s proposals on responsibility and cost sharing in the
control of exotic disease. 

Earlier, Arik Dondi, a civil servant with responsibility for disease control policy at DEFRA, outlined the strategic goals of the draft animal health bill, published on 25th January. 

He said no decisions have yet been made on how funds would be raised and dispersed to implement policy and as this will require primary legislation, no new arrangements will be in place before 2012. 

However, the industry is worried about the possibility of a levy on horse owners, with claims that DEFRA already has firm plans for a “horse tax”. 

Undermining disease control 

During questions, equine breeder John Shenfield insisted that DEFRA also proposed that the compensation available to owners of healthy horses slaughtered in any future outbreak would be limited to £2,500, well below the full market value of many horses. 

He believed this would encourage owners living near an outbreak to move their horses to prevent compulsory slaughter, undermining efforts to control the disease.  Later, Professor Ron Jones warned against any further cuts in the numbers of vets employed in the State veterinary service, as this would seriously compromise the UK’s capacity to cope with new disease threats. 

Mr Paice said his party acknowledged the need for government, taxpayers and industry to share the costs of disease control but rejected many aspects of the current government’s plans. 

He queried why the agriculture and rural affairs minister, Hilary Benn, had chosen to publish a draft bill before a key advisory group chaired by  economist Rosemary Radcliffe is due to report on this issue. 

Mr Paice also questioned the current proposals to treat animal health and welfare as separate issues which would become the responsibility of different bodies. He said the government must certainly retain control over those issues such as international biosecurity which cannot be the responsibility of industry. Under a Conservative government this would be safeguarded by its proposed border police force. 

Mr Paice feared that under the current government’s plans, the costs of the industry levy would be borne by the larger equine businesses as it would be impractical and costly to raise the revenue from those keeping a single animal. 

Willing to consult 

He admitted that he had no solutions to the problems of ensuring that disease control costs were divided fairly and was willing to consult with all interest groups in the industry. 

Representatives of the National Equine Database challenged Mr Paice’s assertion that large numbers of horse owners may be untraceable despite the compulsory requirement to have passports for their animals. 

Graham Cory, chief executive of the British Horse Society, said 1.2 million passports have been issued and if, as Mr Paice claimed, many horses don’t have one, then the British horse population is far higher than current estimates suggest.

Dead horses on database 

Mr Paice said it was widely believed within the industry that the correlation between passports issued and horse numbers was misleading because of various factors, including the numbers of dead horses that remain on the database. 

Another gap in current knowledge of the UK horse industry is the absence of accurate figures on the number of livery yards currently operating, said Mr Ben Mayes, who chairs a BEVA committee looking at the licensing of such establishments. 

He estimated that there are perhaps 20,000 premises that could fall under this category. He believed that these premises should be licensed in the same way as all other types of business which look after animals and this would eliminate a significant source of animal welfare problems. 

He accepted, however, that there would be opposition to any proposals for compulsory veterinary inspections in the current economic climate.