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THE General Election has come and gone and, after a five-week hiatus, it is time for the new Government to get down to business. To call it new may be overstating the case although, with an influx of new MPs, Parliament as a whole has taken on a slightly different hue and, with more blue and yellow mixed in with the red of the Labour Party, the Government is looking, and may even be feeling, a little bruised. There seems unlikely to be any major shift in policies as a result of the election but there is unfinished business to pursue. As far as animal health and welfare is concerned, there are plenty of issues in the pending file, some of which are pressing.
Labour said in its election manifesto that it intends to introduce its Animal Welfare Bill as soon as possible in the new session of Parliament, and it is to be hoped it will be true to its word. The Animal Welfare Bill was supposed to feature in the last parliamentary session, but fell by the wayside when the election was called. The proposed Bill will seek to consolidate a number of existing laws governing the welfare of domestic and captive animals, ranging from the Protection of Animals Act 1911 to the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999. Importantly, it aims to impose a duty of care on the keepers of animals, and to modernise and redefine the offence of cruelty, in a way that should make it possible to prevent unnecessary suffering before it occurs, rather than only being able to act afterwards, as is currently the case. The proposed legislation has already been scrutinised by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which raised some significant concerns about how the Bill was drafted and suggested a number of areas where it could be improved (VR, December 18/25, 2004, vol 155, pp 787-788). The Government has since published its response to the committee’s criticisms (VR, March 12, 2005, vol 156, p 330), but a number of issues have still to be resolved. The proposed Bill has been in the pipeline for more than three years now, and it is time it was taken forward.
One of the first acts of the new Government has been to rename the Department of Trade and Industry, which henceforth will be known as the Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry (DPEI). This sounds rather like newspeak, although it is perhaps too early to say what the effects of the change might be. However, if the new department really wants to be productive, one of the first things it could do is take another look at the draft Supply of Prescription Only Medicines (Veterinary Use) Order 2005, which was prepared by its predecessor to implement the Competition Commission’s recommendations on the supply of prescription-only veterinary medicines. The proposed Order will do nothing to improve animal health and welfare and has the potential to make things worse. At the very best, the department should postpone consideration of the Order until the underlying Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2005, which are currently being drawn up by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, have been finalised. ‘Prescription-only medicines’, which were the subject of the Competition Commission’s inquiry, will mean something different under the new regulations, so at this stage it is impossible to determine what the likely effects of the Order as currently drafted might be. The DPEI should also scrap provisions relating to free prescriptions in the draft legislation. As the BVA has pointed out, these are fundamentally flawed and will reduce transparency and fairness to clients.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs seems to have survived the election with its name intact, although there have been some changes in its ministerial ranks (see p 624 of this issue). There are plenty of things for the ministers to be getting on with, the most pressing of which is dealing with the problem of bovine tuberculosis (TB). The Government’s revised strategy on bovine TB, which was published in March, highlighted the undeniable complexity of the disease and the issues surrounding it, but left the impression that it was still treading water (VR, March 5, 2005, vol 156, p 293). There are plans to introduce premovement testing of cattle in England and Wales, and postmovement testing in Scotland, on the basis that costs will be shared with farmers. Some of the issues surrounding the disease in cattle are being addressed but, as the BVA President pointed out in a speech in Wales last month (VR, May 7, 2005, vol 156, p 590) there also is a need to tackle the issue of infected badgers.
The other main area on which progress must be made is the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. A great deal of energy has been put into developing the strategy over the past two or three years. The challenge, still, is to make it happen. The issue of cost-sharing remains contentious, but the basic concept of widespread veterinary farm health planning, with vets, farmers and government working in partnership to safeguard animal and public health, remains sound. In this, England and Wales might usefully take a lead from Scotland, where the Scottish Executive is making funding available following CAP reform to help get the strategy moving. The Government continues to emphasise the importance of partnership: the Scottish Executive has taken the concept forward and is showing how it might be made to work.