Concerns have been raised over the suitability of the company engaged to run the new Central Equine Database (CED), and the government’s handling of the move.
Representatives of passport-issuing organisations (PIOs) say Defra has “left them in the dark” over arrangements for the database, which is required by EU law to hold “basic identification and food chain status” on all horses in the country.
The contract to run the CED was awarded by Defra to Bramble Hub, a company which tenders for government contracts on behalf of other businesses, which has subcontracted the job to Equine Register.
David Harbinson, who has been working with PIO representatives on updating passports, said he has concerns about the company.
“There are a lot of people unhappy about this,” he said. “Defra is opening itself up to utter frustration from the PIOs. They won’t have a meeting with them — they keep moving it and putting it off.
“The PIOs will have to upload the information onto the CED, for free, but I can’t see how it’s going to work. About 24 of them use one system, but the rest have their own.
“How is Equine Register going to accommodate all of them?”
The UK had a National Equine Database (NED), as EU law gave member states the option to run such facilities, between 2008 and 2012.
Defra “considered carefully” the costs and benefits of issuing a new NED contract in 2012 but, according to a tender document for the CED: “The arguments in favour of funding a database where there was no legal obligation to do so did not justify the benefits, especially at a time of significant budgetary pressure, and funding was withdrawn.”
Since then, UK equine information has been held by 67 government-approved PIOs, which must upload information on all the horses for which they hold records to the CED.
The EU requires the database to be in place by 1 July, and Defra expects it to be “fully operational” by 31 December.
Sharon Reynolds, a director of Pet ID, which has issued more than 150,000 horse passports, said she had heard “only by word of mouth” that the contract had been awarded to Equine Register.
“We didn’t really know much about it,” she added. “We’ve had no backup from Defra; when we send them a query or try to ring them, there’s no response. We feel we’ve been left in the dark.”
Ms Reynolds is also concerned about the work she believes the PIOs will be expected to undertake.
“We’re going to be expected to give Equine Register full support, but we’ve not been informed about any of it,” she said.
A chartered accountant who has examined Equine Register’s accounts said the main data that would have been assessed before the contract was awarded is accounts filed by Equine Register, which are “easily available”.
The professional, who did not want to be named, said the company had recorded, in the year until 31 October 2015, £155,000 in “seed shares”.
She explained: “Each share was £2,500. They will have asked for contributions to enable them to do development work on the software they need. You can see from the accounts that that work has cost them just over £172,000.
“They’ve invested a lot of money in the development of the software, but last October there was no guarantee they’d get the contract, so they haven’t been able to enter it as an asset.
“Anyone looking at the accounts, which PIOs have done, is worried.”
The accountant said that as Equine Register is a small company, it “doesn’t have to give any detail other than its balance sheets”.
She added: “I know people are desperately trying to get businesses up and running.
“It takes time and they need lots of money to be financially viable. It’s easy in theory, but what about
“I’m concerned about the financial viability of Equine Register. I’m also concerned that it has to be up and running by the end of December. It will be so much work that it will be a physical impossibility for the PIOs.”
A Defra spokesman said the government “checks all suppliers carefully before any procurement”.
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A spokesman for Equine Register said: “Equine Register is delighted to have won the tender for the Central Equine Database with its partner Bramble Hub.
“We look forward to working with the PIOs in due course to provide an improved system that makes their lives easier when it comes to complying with the statutory database requirements of the new EU regulations.
“As with all government contracts, there is a strict financial probity section and a contract can only be awarded to a company that has met these requirements.
“The tender also states that there will be no fee charged to PIOs for uploading their new or amended records to the Central Equine Database – and we are keen to start working with the PIOs as soon as we can.”