H&H: Are you satisfied the legislation you have produced is workable and acceptable to the wider horse-owning public?
Alun Michael: Yes I am. It is important to point to the support we’ve had from the majority of the industry — the organisations we’ve worked with over a period of time. Our starting point was what is going to involve the least bureaucracy and fulfil our legal obligations. I took the view that we should try to work with what was already being done in the industry with the passport issuing organisations. Therefore we didn’t go off and set up a new department; we said we’d recognise the passport issuing organisations and, at the suggestion of the industry, we also looked at getting better co-ordination in order to have a single database, which the industry has always wanted to see.
H&H: Is DEFRA sure that the criteria for PIOs is correct and that we have the right kind of organisations issuing passports?
AM: I’ve got some concerns about that. We were happy at the start that the PIOs were doing it for reasons that came out of horse welfare or their work with horses of particular breeds or with the generality of horses. Nobody had anticipated that we would have a rush of new organisations applying to become PIOs. As soon as I realised that was taking place I asked officials to look at it again. Our lawyers and officials are currently reviewing whether there should be a limit on the number and type of organisations issuing passports.
H&H: Might any of these organisations set up specifically to issue passports have to stop business as a result of this review?
AM: I don’t want to jump ahead of the review, which is being carried out very quickly by the head of our legal department. Personally I’m concerned about having too many organisations, particularly if they’re not members of the family of people that work with horses. We’ve walked outside that unintentionally.
H&H: Is one of the concerns whether it’s right that some organisations might be making money out of it?
AM: It’s not so much whether they’re making money as whether it will be consistent in the way passports are issued; whether we can tie the passport into the national database which the industry has been very keen on, and which I’ve been very keen to support.
H&H: Was a standard pricing system ever considered?
AM: Not really, because that would be bureaucratic. How would you set the pricing system? It would have to be a decision of government. The way it’s been done — where you have a choice of the individual organisations — is fine. By and large, there’s been a very responsible approach by the PIOs.
H&H: What happens if a PIO goes bankrupt or closes down? Is the passport the property of the PIO and does the owner then have to apply for another one?
Alison Reeves: The basic principle is that the passport is owned by the issuing organisation. But it’s been issued for a respective horse, and you don’t need to go through the whole process of applying for a new passport — not least because the other basic principle of one passport one horse — and we don’t want confusion over a proliferation of documents. Part of the work of the code of practice [which is being produced by a working group made up of representative of PIOs and headed by BHS chairman Pat Campbell] is to work out what would happen if for any reason — bankruptcy might be one of them — a PIO ceases to exist. In principle we’d be looking for the management of that passport to be subsumed within another PIO.
H&H: With so many PIOs and different documents, are there any steps being taken to prevent forgeries?
AM: That’s a reason for having an integrated system on the database because that allows the specialisms in terms of breeds and so on to continue as part of the passport system and that’s why we’re concerned about the greater proliferation of PIOs outside the family, as it were.
H&H: Can owners be able to fill in silhouettes themselves, if the horse is not microchipped? [DEFRA has since confirmed that from 31 January, silhouettes must be completed by a vet or “authorised person”.]
AM: It has to be a vet or an authorised person that fills in the silhouette, and it stands to reason — and I believe this is the legal advice — that there needs to be some independent verification because otherwise what does the outline mean? In terms of identification the microchip is greatly practical because you are dealing with unique identification. There are a lot of PIOs producing the passport on the basis of the microchip because that is the decision that they took even before this legislation came into place. I’ve talked to the PIOs about encouraging people to have a microchip. The cost of having a microchip is going down all the time. But it is the silhouette that is the legal requirement under European legislation so we can’t escape that at the moment.
H&H: What about all the silhouettes that have already been self-certified?
AM: Introducing this system was bound to have a lot of teething problems. It’s not straightforward but will become more effective as time goes on. Once all horses have passports, anomalies are going to start to disappear. We’ve certainly no intention of sending out the thought police to be heavy handed about all this and we’re talking about the organisations who have worked with us and have worked responsibly. If you dot every i and cross every t you end up with a manual that’s an excellent door stop by trying to anticipate everything. We recognise that we can’t anticipate everything so we’ve gone through the most practical way of implementing the legislation in a way that will protect the industry, protect the use of horse medicines and so on, but using the strengths of the industry.
H&H: Why is freeze-marking not an acceptable alternative to a microchip, especially if it’s been done already?
AM: The options people have generally gone for are microchipping or the minimalist approach of the outline: that’s a description of the industry and the attitude of PIOs. In this country through the Kennel Club, the microchipping of animals is quite well developed. I’ve no strong views about freeze-branding; I’m told it’s less certain than the microchip.
AR: When I was involved in the cattle passport scheme, there were concerns about was it actually tamper-proof, and how easy is it to read. Reading of cattle ID is perhaps a different set of circumstances, but they were some of the concerns at that time. Also, freeze brands tend to indicate the owner rather than be unique to each animal.
H&H: Many police officers consider a photograph the best form of ID for stolen animals. Was a photograph for ID considered?
AM: If we were dealing with the legislation now, we’d be pushing for Europe to recognise microchipping from day one. But at the time it was being discussed, microchipping was quite expensive.
AR: There’s the linked issue here in the scope of moving towards databases. If you want to refer to the unique identity of a horse, obviously photographs start to have a more limited use than something that’s a numerical or alphanumerical code. I accept that what the police are using them for is quite a different purpose.
H&H: What sort of policing structure has been put in place? Will enforcement be quite robust?
AM: It will need to be robust in the fullness of time. Obviously the control at the abattoir and on the application of horse medicines mean that the passport will need to be marked appropriately, and the decision made by an owner that it’s intended for the food chain or not. Each of those start to become self-policing as the choices are made.
AR: There are certain critical control points in the life of a horse or in the use of a horse. The passport legislation needs to be read in conjunction with other pieces of legislation to do with welfare and movements, medicines legislation: it can be supplementary to other controls.
H&H: What is the local authority actually expected to do to enforce the legislation?
AM: It’s going to depend on the arrangements. Most people involved with horses are law-abiding people who understand what the law is; I think people will settle down to making it work.
H&H: Would show organisers be expected to not allow someone to compete without the proper documentation (outside organisers’ own requirements)?
AM: I’m not sure that the legislation requires that, but it’ll become automatic to use the document as backing up identification. When it comes to it, you’ve got a horse, you expect to have a passport.
H&H: Why was it deemed necessary for non-compliance to carry such a stiff penalty [up to £5,000 or a jail term]?
AM: You need a range of penalties that can fit the serious end of offending. If somebody was being cavalier about medicines that were banned from human consumption, that could be quite dangerous. Therefore it’s right that it can be severely punished, but as with all cases you look at the appropriateness of the punishment to the offence rather than at the top end of the scale, unless you’ve got a very serious incident.
H&H: If passports can be issued at sales and auctions, what’s to stop stolen horses coming in, getting new papers, and being sold on, having been re-identified?
AM: I think this will become less of a problem over time. There is a perceived problem, but it’s not likely to be as large as some people have made out, and in any event it will go away over time.
AR: The one company concerned has made quite clear that suggestions that they’re not being rigorous is wrong. If we have any evidence that any of the PIOs are being slapdash, we have powers to withdraw their recognition.
H&H: You say it’s not your intention to harm the UK abattoir industry, and I understand you’re taking another look at the human consumption declaration. Will you have to change the timing of this declaration in order to protect the abattoir industry?
AM: We’re revisiting this: originally I gave the advice that it had to be done this way round, not least to give certainty to the vet treating the horse as to whether it was likely it would end up in the food chain. The owner needs certainty, the vet needs certainty, those doing the horse passports need certainty. I’m not saying we’re going to come up with anything different, but it’s sensible to look at things again to make sure that we have got it right.
H&H: [Industry experts] have scrutinised the EU legislation and have not found a reason why the declaration could not be made at the point when a horse needed treatment that would stop it from going in the food chain or would need a withdrawal period to do so.
AM: I’ve heard that mentioned but I’m not certain it would meet the legal requirement or provide the certainty that vets will need but that’s what we’re revisiting.
AR: The cultural point [about owners automatically declaring their horses “not for human consumption”] is a big issue. The form of words in the declaration is laid down in the legislation, and that’s what has given us the legal difficulty. Timing is a bit of a red herring, in terms of whether a later declaration would solve the problem. Fundamentally, I think it’s the form of words in the culture of this country.
H&H: The legislation requires a horse to have a passport before it leaves its holding for more than two weeks. This will stop mares being taken to a stallion with a foal at foot. Was this the intention?
AR: As you know the legislation is being revoked and remade because of legal details. The intention behind that clause was to make very clear deadlines when things need to happen, but unintentionally this has caught this activity and we are looking to take it out of the remade legislation.
H&H: Does worming treatment have to be entered on the passport?
AR: If worming treatment contains this group of substances that fall outside these Annexes, then yes.
H&H: Have vets been issued with guidelines regarding the legislation?
AM: When we got the comments from the JCSI (joint committee on statutory instruments) we were on the point of issuing guidelines. So it made sense to hold it back so we can see the new legislation. It will be the priority to tidy it up to match what the new legislation will set out.
H&H: Pending these guidelines, is it the intention that after 30 June a vet can treat a horse that has no passport but needs urgent treatment?
AM: That’s a difficult one to answer, because you can imagine situations in which you almost have to break rules to look after the interest of the animal. The common sense is that if it’s emergency treatment then you have to treat the animal. In cases with foals, details of the medicines should be collected and presented when they apply for the passport so we’ve got that history as appropriate. The key point is the administration of medicines that can never go into the food chain and that’s where we need to be clear that the guidance will not result in welfare problems because that is not the intention.
H&H: Are there other categories to be added to feral ponies?
AM: At the beginning I had discussions with representatives of a number of organisations from Dartmoor, New Forest, Exmoor and others. We looked at what was necessary to implement the legislation. Provided they could meet requirements to hold a register of which animals were where and who owned them, we decided we could meet the spirit of the regulations through a local system, as long as there was strong support in the area, and consistency about the way it was applied. The New Forest and Dartmoor came back with a scheme that met those requirements, but Exmoor took the view that they would find it too onerous and chose not to pursue it. You may have feral ponies in a particular area, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got this situation in place.
H&H: Was there thought to give leeway on price to welfare organisations or riding schools?
AR: There are PIOs who offer special rates for these sorts of animals.
H&H: Is Scotland and Wales copying our legislation?
AM: I believe so. There needs to be as much of a common approach as possible so people aren’t confused.
H&H: Has the idea of horses changing names caused problems?
AR: With the emergence of the database this sort of issue will become more focused. It shouldn’t cause a problem as long as we’re clear which horse we’re talking about, and should improve with the code of practice and standardisation.
H&H: Is there going to be another publicity drive between now and June?
AM: Yes, absolutely. We have done a lot of work with all the horse welfare organisations and have sought to publicise what we’re doing at each stage. There are more exciting stories for the front page of the newspapers but there’s no doubt that people who are breeding or selling or associated trades, or running shows and gymkhanas have a pretty good understanding of the requirements.