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LAST week’s Cabinet reshuffle has resulted in significant changes in the ministerial team at DEFRA. With Mrs Margaret Beckett moving to the Foreign Office, and Mr Elliot Morley leaving the ranks of ministers, none of the ministers appointed when DEFRA was formed at the height of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis in 2001 remains in the department. Mr Ben Bradshaw is the only minister left with any previous form in DEFRA and, having been appointed to the department in June 2003, has nearly three years’ experience under his belt. Specific ministerial responsibilities had not been announced by the time this issue of The Veterinary Record went to press, so it was not clear whether he would continue to be involved with animal health and welfare.
The new Secretary of State is Mr David Miliband, who comes to DEFRA fresh from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Miliband is fairly unique in government in that he is running a ministerial ‘blog’ (now on DEFRA’s website at www.davidmiliband.defra.gov.uk). This is being done, he says, to help bridge the gap between politicians and the public. ‘It will show what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about, and what I’ve read, heard or seen for myself which has sparked interest or influenced my ideas.’He will, he says, read and respond to people’s comments on his postings, and he invites people to use the site as ‘a noticeboard for new thoughts’.
Mr Miliband’s blog reveals that he spent last weekend mugging up on DEFRA’s range of responsibilities, and that his weekend’s reading brought home that DEFRA ‘really does engage with “the essentials of life”’, as set out in its five-year plan that was published 18 months ago (see VR, January 15, 2005, vol 156, p 61). As he puts it, ‘DEFRA is a department whose agenda touches everyone’s life – from the cleanliness of our streets and the food on our plates, to the diversity of our wildlife and the future of the planet’.With so much to deal with, it is not surprising that he finds the prospect of his new role ‘exciting and daunting’. During his first week, he says, ‘I will try to get my head round some of the most difficult issues, but also start the outreach to colleagues in the rest of government . . . and also more widely.’He also hopes to have a chance ‘to get out into rural England to hear from farmers but also rural residents and businesses about the issues they face’.
In another posting, Mr Miliband says he hopes his new job ‘won’t be the end of my presence on the blogosphere’. This is a hope that many will doubtless share, although it seems inevitable that he will have to spend more time on the atmosphere, and perhaps even closer to earth. Climate change and environmental issues are high on DEFRA’s agenda, and have been ever since the department was formed from the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment five years ago. However, for all the emphasis being placed on the environment,‘a sustainable farming and food sector including animal health and welfare’ is still listed as one of DEFRA’s priorities, and it is to be hoped that the minister also finds time to devote to this area as he settles into his new role.
Delays in payments to farmers under the Single Payment Scheme have already been the subject of a parliamentary statement from the new minister but, that aside, there are many other issues relating to farming and animal health and welfare that need to be progressed. Some of the these were highlighted by the BVA President, Dr Freda Scott-Park, in a speech to opinion-formers in Wales last week (see p 644 of this issue). In particular, Dr Scott-Park referred to the challenges facing rural veterinary practices and the effect that a decline in the number of veterinary surgeons available to work with farm animals will have on disease surveillance and biosecurity. A veterinary input on farms is fundamental to Britain’s animal health and welfare strategy, and the problems currently being encountered will need to be recognised and addressed if the aims of the strategy are ever to be achieved. At the same time, there needs to be appropriate recognition of the vital role played by vets in government service, whether employed directly or working as local veterinary inspectors.
There are numerous difficult animal health issues to deal with, including bovine tuberculosis and avian influenza to name but two, and it is to be hoped that the new minister can start getting his head round some of these soon. Referring to climatic change in this week’s blog, Mr Miliband said he saw the challenges in terms of opportunities and dangers: ‘Locally, nationally and internationally there are opportunities to advance economic and social progress, but there are also huge dangers. We need to use the dangers to motivate us to take up the opportunities.’The same can be said in relation to animal health and welfare. Safeguarding animal health undoubtedly presents challenges, but it also provides opportunities and represents a sound investment for the future. In a department born during the foot-and-mouth disease crisis, he should need no reminding of the dangers.