Defra has abandoned its controversial plan to create one single passport issuing organisation (PIO), which would have deprived many breed societies of vital income, but was supported by charities.

Agriculture Minister Jim Paice announced the U-turn at the British horse industry’s annual meeting, the National Equine Forum, last Tuesday (8 March), to audible gasps from the room.

Mr Paice acknowledged that tendering passport issuing to a single agency, which would also have run the National Equine Database (news, 20 January), had created a furore among breed societies.

But he warned them: “We have dropped that idea [of a single PIO], but it does not mean that the issue has gone away. I cannot say you have won. We still have to talk around this issue.”

In a letter to PIOs dated 8 March, Defra head of horse identification Donna Yates confirmed that the British Equestrian Federation’s (BEF) contract to run the NED will be extended by up to 18 months while new proposals are drawn up.

“The equine industry will be involved in the development work and we will be in contact with more details shortly,” she added.

The decision puts NED in limbo as it had planned to apply to be the single PIO and continue to run the database.

“[The future] is completely uncertain and that’s not a comfortable position,” said NED chief executive Nick Wallbridge.

A Defra spokesman added: “We’re not committed to any particular proposal at this stage. It’s too early to speculate about how passports may be issued and how information is collected and stored in the future.”

The breeding community is holding a meeting on 31 March at the NEC Birmingham to discuss the situation.

John Shenfield of the British Hanoverian Society said: “We have mixed feelings about this. Defra’s plan was not going to work, but the National Equine Database should be a function of the stud books, not the BEF [as it is currently]. We shall have to wait and see what happens.”

And Catherine Burdock of Sport Horse Breeding (GB) said: “There is a lot that needs to be done by Defra on this subject — passports are not being enforced.”

Charities are sorry the passport issue is on hold.

World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers said: “We had cautiously welcomed the change to the system. The reputation of passports could not be lower — people see them as bureaucratic nonsense — but they could be a very important tool against disease.

“The current system does not work and while the breed societies do very good work, it is not credible for us to carry on with 84 PIOs. The system was not set up to be an income stream for the breed societies.”

Horse Trust chief executive Jeanette Allen said she was “very disappointed” that Defra was not going ahead with the plans for a single PIO.

This news story was first published in Horse & Hound (17 March, 2011)