Horse & Hound reports from the first Equestrian Employers Association conference where topics included how to balance the business books while complying with current legislation...
Equestrian businesses have called for the equestrian world to unite if the industry is to have a viable future.
The message came during debate at the inaugural Equestrian Employers Association (EEA) conference, held at Stallion AI Services in Shropshire on 25 February.
The incoming rise in the minimum wage for all ages from 1 April, and the Conservative Party’s election pledge to raise this to £10.50 within five years for over-25s, sparked discussion on how equestrian businesses can survive.
“I don’t think any of us in this room want not to employ staff correctly — I don’t think anyone deliberately wants to avoid doing things the way they should,” said Mike Hallows, of Hubbards Hall Livery.
“[The equestrian world] is such a lifestyle and a huge amount of work to get the job done.
“How do we persuade government that what we do is important and to our clients that they are going to have to put their hands in their pockets a bit deeper?”
Rosie Lord, owner of Berkshire Riding Centre, said in her experience, being open and honest with clients about where costs have previously been absorbed by the business, why that cannot happen forever and therefore why prices have to rise, is the way forward.
International eventer Francis Whittington said the time has come for a “united front” and perhaps a guide to the baseline costs of running a yard.
“It is a lifestyle, but you still have to be able to pay for everything,” he said. “If one yard is undercutting, that devalues the whole industry.”
The question was put to the EEA as to whether it would ever consider an agreement with the British Grooms Association (BGA) on working hours and pay, in a similar way to the racing industry.
In racing, the National Association of Racing Staff — a union, unlike the BGA — and the National Trainers Federation annually agree a minimum rates of pay structure. This covers everything from minimum rates, dependent on experience and role, weekly hours, overtime both on and away from the yard, expenses and more.
BGA chief executive Lucy Katan explained the way the grooms’ and employers’ associations in the wider industry work are different.
“Could we do something [similar] with the BGA and EEA? It wouldn’t be the same because it is a very different relationship between the two organisations,” she said. “What we could do is work to create some advice for employers.”
She said they can look at creating a cost-per-day guidance on keeping different types of horses, which could serve as a guide for both employers and education for owners.
“We have to expect a rise of 44p every year [to the minimum wage],” said Ms Katan, adding the industry has been on the back foot when it comes to understanding staffing costs. “It is going to go up and up on all [age] levels.
“I feel that now we are catching up very quickly and unfortunately we are getting caught out. I’ve never heard of so many minimum wage investigations as now. “
What if I break the rules?
The financial and emotional stress an HMRC investigation brings were raised and employers were warned it is not a case of only “bad” employers that can be affected.
Even those who are aiming to do the morally right thing and be legally compliant were urged to ensure their records are meticulous, as should the inspectors come knocking, everything will be pulled apart.
The good news is that a lot of this is simple — riders were encouraged to make use of their yard diaries, which most still use; recording at the top of each day who is in, who is on holiday, start and finish times and lunchbreaks, and asking members of staff to sign at the end of each day or week to confirm it is an accurate record of what they did. While not a guarantee, the conference heard having solid records is a vital part of a defence.
Phil Conley, from HMRC’s promoting compliance team, told the conference common causes of underpayment are not deliberate, but are instead “error driven”. For example, incorrectly applying the accommodation offset, the limit to the value of accommodation provided by an employer.
“It appears simple, but the devil is in the detail,” he said.
The penalties are huge — arrears can be backdated as far as six years, to be paid back at the current minimum wage rates, as well as a 200% fine and £500 if the employer is named in a government press release. That is before legal costs are taken into account.
“The costs of getting it wrong are very harsh,” Mr Conley said. “We encourage employers to carry out the necessary checks, and put it right.”
Barrister Victoria von Wachter specialises in equestrian and employement law among other areas.
“Doing what is morally right and what is acceptable to both sides of the equation sadly will not get you out of jail when it comes to legal compliance,” she said, warning of the toll court appearances take on all sides. “The reality is you must comply with the law and very often the law doesn’t give the sense of family and comfort that working for a [good] employer will give to an employee.”
She added the vocational nature of the industry means very often employees will hang around after their working day has officially finished, which is fine, but urged employers to be very clear about what times someone is and is not working.
“You are not breaking any law by not recording hours, but you would be foolish not to,” she said, adding employers are putting themselves at risk if it comes down to their word against employees’. “The more pieces of paper you have, the safer you are going to be.”
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