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Straight talking on the AHWS

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THE ‘England Implementation Group’ (eig) was given a stiff task when it was set up by defra in June 2005 to advise the Government on implementing the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws). Specifically, it was asked to ‘drive forward delivery of the vision and strategic aims of the ahws’ in England and, in doing so, ‘help bring about long-term improvements to the well being of the nation' kept animals’. That' a lot to expect from a group made up of 13 individuals which meets only six times a year, which probably explains why, at first sight, its first annual progress report,* which was published last week, might look a little thin. However, first impressions can be misleading. The ahws calls for a fundamental change in approach to safeguarding animal health. Given the scale of the task and the nature of the challenges involved, there is more to the report than first meets the eye.

The group has spent its first year assessing the current situation and setting priorities. According to its chairman, Helen Browning, ‘Our findings have been at times uplifting, at times frustrating. There are some great initiatives making considerable progress; there are also pockets of deep despondency in both the farming and veterinary professions, and a lack of clarity on how to move forward on animal health and welfare issues. Fundamentally, we need to see a change in attitude from many players, including vets, farmers and government.’

The report certainly pulls no punches. Discussing proposals under the ahws for sharing costs and responsibilities, for example, it describes these as ‘inevitably controversial’, but suggests they also provide some real opportunities for the farming industry to renegotiate its relationship with government. ‘After decades of playing out the “parent-child” scenario, farming leaders can now decide to engage with government on a more mature basis.’

Regarding the role of government, it expresses concern about the effects of cost reduction targets set for defra, makes clear its dismay at delays in decision making on bovine tb and also questions whether the Government is really ready to fundamentally change its ways of working. ‘We have been encouraged by a very different approach from that which was heavily criticised during foot-and-mouth, for instance, as contingency plans were developed for avian influenza. Key players have felt much more involved and in touch with developments and the rationale for decisions’. It adds, however, ‘old habits are hard to break, and defra will need to guard against an instinct to return to its default position of “command and control” and of withholding information that could, actually, be in the public domain.’

As far as the veterinary profession is concerned, it says the profession seems to be in a similar position to the livestock industry. ‘It has clear difficulties in finding financially viable ways forward for some of its members, particularly practices in areas where farming incomes, and client density, are low. It is apparent that a better understanding between farmers and vets is essential; farmers should appreciate the contribution that their vets can make to their businesses, but at the same time vets must be able to deliver the services and value that farmers require. There may be a need to review undergraduate and in-service education, and support available during the early careers of those going into large animal practice.’

The eig says it has seen evidence of exciting examples of business innovation and excellence in the veterinary field, but also of ‘a less agreeable, though understandable, desire for other agents to somehow magic an improved future for vets’. Its concern is that, to secure animal health and welfare objectives, access to veterinary services must be available to all. It says it is keen to encourage and support the development of a coherent strategy for the veterinary profession and, with this in mind, wants to explore positive solutions that can be taken forward ‘largely by the profession itself’.

One of the eig' central initiatives during its first year has been to promote and support the creation of ‘ector councils’ to develop species-specific strategies and plans. It notes that the pig industry has long led the way in this regard and that, over the past few months, the cattle and sheep sectors have made ‘encouraging progress’ in establishing their own sector councils. It hopes to include details of their sectoral strategies and plans in a full England Implementation Plan for the ahws, which it aims to publish in September next year. It adds that the poultry sector seems to have advanced ‘less rapidly’ in this respect and describes the companion animal sector as being ‘o diverse that it is difficult to make general comments at this stage’. It believes it would be appropriate to develop a body to help set priorities for action in the companion animal sector and says it will be pursuing this ‘with vigour’.

Another initiative has been to start work on developing a framework of ‘livestock strategy indicators’, providing baseline data against which progress with the ahws can be assessed. This in itself is a considerable task and the report gives details of the indicators being developed for each element of the strategy. The eig also places great store on veterinary surveillance, which was the subject of a separate report earlier this year.

The eig has set itself an ambitious programme of work over the next few months, which in a sense serves to highlight the challenges facing the group as it tries to drive the ahws forward. The eig can assess what is happening, seek to stimulate change and monitor progress. It can also highlight good and bad practice. However, despite its title, it can't actually implement the strategy by itself. That, ultimately, is a challenge for everyone concerned.

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