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Can't pay, won't pay!

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THE Government's agenda on cost and responsibility sharing might be easier to swallow if one could believe it was driven purely by a desire to improve animal health and welfare, rather than, say, a desire to cut costs and offload some of its current obligations on to the industry. The Secretary of State at defra, Mr Hilary Benn, was accused of being insensitive last month when he raised the subject at a conference on the future of farming, at a time when the country was grappling with the effects of outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, bluetongue and avian influenza, but at least he had the courage to tell it how it is. He told delegates: ‘The current arrangements are unsustainable. Public spending on animal health and welfare is in excess of £400 million a year, and that is without the additional costs of dealing with disease outbreaks … I want to reform the system so that farmers — those who benefit more than anyone else from well managed risk — are central to the decision-making process and contribute to the costs of those decisions in a fair way.’ Coming as news emerged that, for the second year running, defra was planning emergency budgetary cuts of between £130 million and £270 million across the department, his message could hardly have been clearer. If only the various consultation documents on cost sharing emanating from defra could be half as forthright.

The latest consultation document on the subject — ‘Responsibility and cost sharing for animal health and welfare: next steps — your views matter’* — is a case in point. Although it goes further than previous documents in pressing the case for cost sharing, and even proposes some specific mechanisms, it somehow seems to suggest that all this will benefit farmers and should be welcomed with open arms. The evidence to date suggests this may not be the case. Things are not helped here by the somewhat patronising tone of the document, best exemplified, perhaps, by an accompanying ‘Discussion guide’, intended to encourage group discussion of the subject. The Government wants to encourage group discussions to help inform responses to the consultation, which is admirable, but the discussion guide does seem to hint at the kind of response it wants.

That aside, the consultation document makes clear that the Government is keen to press ahead on cost and responsibility sharing, with a view to achieving ‘a new relationship which delivers a lasting and continuous improvement in the health and welfare of kept animals whilst protecting the general public, the economy and the environment from the effects of animal disease’. Meanwhile, the European Commission is pursuing a similar line as it develops a new animal health strategy for the eu (VR, September 29, 2007, vol 161, pp 435-436). At a European level, as well as in the uk, the approach is being taken partly on financial grounds and partly on the basis that, if producers are given more responsibility for controlling diseases of animals, they will make more effort to prevent them. This idea has gained much ground in recent years and one thing that might usefully be clarified as a result of defra's consultation is how much evidence there is to support it.

The consultation document cites the partnerships involved in tackling the recent outbreaks of avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue as ‘excellent indications of how industry is able and ready to take on a greater responsibility and play an active role in managing disease’, and makes a number of suggestions as to how this kind of responsibility sharing might be applied more widely and incorporated into more formal structures. It rightly draws attention to the importance of farm health planning in disease prevention, which is clearly an area in which the veterinary profession should be involved. On the specific issue of cost sharing, it notes that, ‘currently, there are no fundraising means to share the costs of animal health and welfare provision where benefits are shared by the industry as a whole’ and sets out a number of options that might be pursued, including licensing, insurance or a tax/levy on producers. It asks for views on these ways of raising funds, and which might be best for ‘driving behavioural change’. Mercifully, perhaps, it outlines a phased approach to the introduction of cost and responsibility sharing and acknowledges that the Government does have some responsibilities in this area; someone must take ownership of animal health, and the worst possible outcome of this change of approach would be a structural vacuum in which important activities did not get funded at all. It also acknowledges that the sharing of costs should take into account affordability and competitiveness for different sectors and regions.

Many of the proposals set out in the document are very vague, although specific proposals on transferring the costs of various tse control measures to the industry give a clear indication of the direction of government thinking. One can see that defra wanted to include specific examples in its consultation document, but these might more appropriately have been the subject of a separate consultation. Be that as it may, the Government clearly intends to move ahead with its agenda on cost sharing. As was pointed out at a bva Council meeting last week (see pp 802-804 of this issue), this is a hugely important subject for the veterinary profession, which must be ready to make its own contribution to the debate.

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