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Wishful thinking on welfare?

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TRADITIONALLY, if they want to achieve something, governments use a carrot and stick approach — incentives for doing things right, penalties for doing things wrong, or sometimes a combination of both. In its draft Animal Welfare Delivery Strategy,* which was published for consultation last week, the Government takes a different line, suggesting that success in this field in the future will mean ‘a move away from the traditional legislative approach, towards delivery of outcomes through other, more innovative means’. This, it says, will mean effective enforcement of existing regulations, but also ‘a greater emphasis on stakeholders and Government working together to deliver good welfare, with clarity about their respective roles and responsibilities’.

Although described as new, this particular approach may, in fact, already be familiar to those who have followed the development of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws), of which, once agreed, the Animal Welfare Delivery Strategy will form part. The proposed new strategy has been developed in response to concerns about a lack of focus on animal welfare issues in the ahws, and the fact that it has been produced at all is welcome. However, there must be concern about just how effective it will be given that it has been difficulties in agreeing the respective roles and responsibilities of government and stakeholders that has hindered progress with the ahws. Also, as the consultation document makes clear, the Animal Welfare Delivery Strategy ‘does not contain detailed objectives, actions, timescales or funding requirements’; these are to be set out in a separate action plan, to be drafted in partnership with stakeholders and published separately. It also makes clear that this is a non-statutory consultation (that is, not required of defra by law), but that ‘in keeping with the spirit of partnership working championed by the strategy, we are keen that the final published document is real and robust, and supported by our partners’. The emphasis on consensus and everyone working happily together towards a common goal is admirable, but the lack of detail relating to objectives, actions, timescales and funding does raise the question of whether the strategy will really take off.

Like the ahws, the draft Animal Welfare Delivery Strategy sets out a vision for the future, in this case that ‘All those who care for animals understand, accept and meet their responsibility to ensure good standards of welfare for them, and have the necessary skills and knowledge to manage and minimise risks of harm (including through the prevention of preventable problems), and to recognise and deal promptly with other problems as they arise.’ It also sets out specific goals for achieving this vision, namely:

  • That those who interact with animals have the necessary skills and knowledge to ensure appropriate standards of animal welfare;

  • That animal welfare policy is based on sound scientific research, practical experience and other relevant evidence;

  • That economic markets function effectively and transparently so customers can make informed choices based on welfare provenance;

  • Compliance with welfare rules, with efficient and effective enforcement, using risk-based assessments, and avoiding unnecessary burdens on animal keepers; and

  • Globally accepted animal welfare standards that are embedded in international legislation and agreements.

All of that sounds fairly ambitious in a field that is generally regarded as highly complex, and it will take much determination to drive the strategy forward. However, although the strategy document suggests various mechanisms for achieving its vision, these seem a little vague and, with no specific discussion of resources, there must be concern that the necessary drive may be lacking. For example, clearer food labelling, so that customers can make more informed choices about the products they buy, has long been seen as a means of improving market transparency and, as the Farm Animal Welfare Council pointed out in a report earlier this year, could well bring about improvements in animal welfare (VR, June 24, 2006, vol 158, pp 842-843). The strategy recognises the potential of better food labelling, which is clearly a step in the right direction. However, in view of the potential benefits, the suggested action — that the Government should ‘liaise with major retailers to agree support for a consistent labelling framework’ (afforded ‘medium priority’ in the consultation document) — perhaps seems a little lame.

The document outlines roles and responsibilities for all those who interact with animals or benefit from products made from them, ranging from individual animal owners and users of animals, through stakeholder organisations such as industry groups and welfare organisations, to central government and local authorities. There is undoubtedly merit in this approach, but there will clearly be challenges in ensuring that everyone plays their full part. For its own part, the Government sees its role as being mainly that of a facilitator, ‘using its unique position and expertise to drive forward collective action to improve achievement of welfare outcomes’, although it does make some specific commitments, such as identifying, resourcing and facilitating high-quality research and surveillance, which are welcome. At the same time, care must be taken to ensure that increased focus on the delivery of welfare outcomes through joint working or by stakeholder-owned initiatives, and a desire to reduce unnecessary burdens on industry, does not result in the Government abrogating its responsibilities in this area and taking too much of a ‘hands off’ approach. One of the suggestions in the document is that non-governmental or stakeholder organisations could have a role in representing the uk in international forums on animal welfare. While likely to be welcomed by some of the organisations concerned, this is certainly an unusual suggestion, and not one which one could easily envisage the Government adopting in other areas in which it has an interest, such as education, human health, law and order or defence. It is all very well to talk of sharing responsibility for animal welfare in a way that is consistent with both the vision of the ahws and the Government's agenda on sharing responsibilities and costs, but the Government should not lose sight of its own responsibilities in the process.

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