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HOW should costs and responsibilities for animal health be shared between the Government and the livestock industry? This question is fundamental to efforts to safeguard animal health and welfare in Great Britain, and also public health, but, nearly four years after publication of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws), seems far from being resolved.

Cost and responsibility sharing, with greater emphasis on working in partnership, represents a key element of the ahws, which was published in June 2004. Keen to move things forward, and arguing that the present arrangements are ‘unsustainable’, defra issued a consultation document on the subject last December, inviting comments by April 15. The Scottish Government also consulted on the subject last December and, more recently, the Welsh Assembly Government, too, has launched a consultation. The situation is complicated by the fact that both the Government and farmers are strapped for cash, and that the European Commission is also developing ideas on cost and responsibility sharing as part of a wider Animal Health Strategy for the eu. Meanwhile, the disease challenges are increasing. In its submission in response to defra's request for comments, the bva argues that it is important to focus on the key issues and, rather than attempting to answer the specific questions posed in defra's consultation document, has framed its comments accordingly.

In its submission, the bva says that the Government should maintain its financial commitment to animal health and welfare and seek to improve the overall approach. It also says that the Government should continue its commitment to research into animal health and welfare and, in particular, should consider further investment in surveillance. It believes that there should be ‘a genuine partnership’ between the Government and all industry stakeholders, with shared decision-making, which recognises that ‘if industry pays, it must have greater say’.

Great Britain is a single epidemiological unit and, the bva points out, needs to be considered as such. However, it says, decision-making should encourage regional flexibility, not just with regard to devolution, but also in terms of regional variation. It calls for improved controls at borders, with both the uk Government and the eu enhancing border biosecurity to reduce the risk of avoidable disease incursion and spread. It also believes that there should be stronger links between policy and delivery, and argues that there should be greater independence of decision-making from day-to-day politics, with an approach that focuses on the best available scientific evidence. To achieve this, it suggests that animal health and welfare should be overseen by a non-departmental public body, like the Environment Agency.

On the question of whether cost sharing will lead to improved farm practices, the bva recognises that effective biosecurity at the enterprise and industry level is extremely important in mitigating the risk of disease introduction and spread. However, it says, any cost sharing arrangements must provide industry with an incentive for action; they should not simply be a flat levy on farmers, but should encourage all interested parties to improve their practice, rewarding those who achieve good animal health and welfare outcomes.

It recommends that farm health planning should be developed as the tool to reduce risk and to identify and reward good practice, but says that the system needs to be developed ‘beyond merely farm assurance paperwork, to one where all enterprise and industry-level participants, in consultation with their professional advisers, plan and audit their success’.

It believes that it is time to license all animal keepers whose animals might be a reservoir of infection, with those who employ good practice being charged lower fees. This, it points out, would also provide a register of kept animals for use during disease outbreaks.

It suggests that, if proposals for a levy system are pursued, this should be as broad-based as possible and applied all along the supply chain, including the retail end. It expresses concern about the impact of any levy on the competitiveness of local agricultural industries, which, it says, must not be disadvantaged in European or global markets.

The bva notes that disease categorisation could be useful in considering how responsibilities and costs should be shared in relation to specific diseases, and includes a list with its submission suggesting how diseases might be categorised. However, it says, the difficulties of such an approach must be acknowledged and considerations based on the best available evidence.

Despite all the difficulties, there is a need to move forward in developing a logical, coordinated approach to sharing responsibilities and costs. The alternative is that policies will be introduced on an ad hoc basis or arrived at by default. What must not be allowed to happen is for an ownership vacuum to develop, where certain diseases don't get dealt with at all.

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