THE role of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in my opinion, is to legislate and deal with the issues that affect the everyday lives of people and businesses across Northern Ireland.
That is exactly what I hope to do later this year when I introduce my Private Members’ Bill to Assembly. It will seek to reclassify the horse from a domestic to an agricultural animal.
Today I will launch the public consultation of the Bill at the Balmoral Show. The consultation represents several months of meetings with equine businesses, government officials and broader industry stakeholders.
Whilst the purpose behind the reclassification might not be instantly apparent, for anyone who works in the equine industry in Northern Ireland, and it employs the full time equivalent of 5,600 people here, the appeal is clear.
Firstly, at present a horse is classed as a domestic animal; just like a cat or a dog. Yet equine businesses such as stud farms and riding schools operate on a level which is often much more comparable to agricultural services; the big difference being one pays full rates whilst the other is totally exempt.
There are a 175 equine businesses spread throughout Northern Ireland and they are absolutely invaluable to our local economy, not least because of the significant contribution they make to the tourism industry.
I have had research carried out which calculated that the total non-domestic rates liability for these 175 businesses this year will come in at approximately £340,000.
My proposal is to offer equine businesses here either total rates exemption through the reclassification or alternatively offer the industry rates relief, something which already exists in varying forms across England, Scotland and Wales.
If the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister can justify having eight highly paid political special advisors, then I believe the equine industry can be justified in asking for the financial assistance that many of their equivalents in the Republic and Great Britain already receive.
A reclassification would also assist each and every ratepayer as it would reduce the financial burden on local councils to deal with horse welfare issues as these would become the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Finally, greater management of the registration of horses in Northern Ireland is desperately needed. Currently there are thousands of unregistered horses in Northern Ireland, and furthermore many of those that are registered are being exported to mainland Europe for consumption as horse meat. The entire system needs tightened up, not only to deal with stray horses but to ensure those which are being produced and exported meet basic requirements.
To ensure my Bill is truly reflective of the desires from those involved in the industry, as well as those who are not, I want to open it up to as much discussion and wide a scrutiny as possible. Therefore I would genuinely value your views. To take part in the consultation please visit my website www.sandraoverend.co.uk or alternatively www.uup.org and click ‘policy papers’.