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DEFRA awakes

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TRYING to anticipate defra consultation documents is like waiting for a bus: you hang around for ages and then six turn up at once. After a fairly lengthy hiatus, defra has, over the past couple of weeks, published a number of consultation documents relevant to animal health and welfare, all of which need to be considered carefully, and all of which will require a response.

Perhaps the most controversial of these — and certainly the ones that have attracted most media attention so far — concern proposed codes of practice for the welfare of cats, dogs and horses. These codes have been expected for some time and, once finalised, should help owners fulfil their duty of care, as required under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, to ensure that their animals' needs are met. One of the consequences of this Act, which came into force in April 2007, was to make it an offence to fail to provide for the needs of an animal, making it possible for enforcement agencies to take steps to prevent animal suffering, rather than only act afterwards as had been the case previously.

To fulfil their duty of care, owners need to know what their animals' needs are and, in this respect, codes of practice will clearly be helpful. However, to be effective, the codes will need to be widely accepted, assimilated and understood, which is no small task at the best of times. The codes are all fairly lengthy documents, which will put some people off reading them in the first place; although they contain much useful information, they are also fairly prescriptive and go into considerable detail in some areas, which leaves plenty of room for argument about whether all the advice is sound. Although the aim is to outline owners' responsibilities under the Act and give practical advice on how to fulfil them, some may find the documents rather forbidding — and there is always the problem that while responsible owners who already take good care of their animals will read the codes and take note of the contents, irresponsible owners will not.

One difficulty is that the codes seek to act as both a carrot and a stick. defra points out that ‘If a person fails to comply with a code of practice they will not be liable to proceedings of any kind, but failure to comply with several provisions may be used in evidence to support a prosecution for animal cruelty.’ There is no doubt that owners need to be aware of their responsibilities and have access to the kind of information provided in the codes, but one can't help feeling that a simpler, more engaging, ‘user-friendly’ format should be found.

The draft codes make welcome reference to the need to seek veterinary advice, but this is not always consistent across the three codes. All in all, there is much to consider in the codes but, in inviting comments, defra has allowed less time to respond than is usual in government consultations — eight weeks instead of 12 — on the grounds that they are heavily based on codes produced by the Assembly for Wales which were subject to wide consultation. This is certainly a novel argument, and one which could have interesting implications for devolution.

Other consultations launched over the past couple of weeks concern equine passports and identification, testing cattle for bse, and controlling swine vesicular disease. The consultation on equine identification is primarily concerned with implementing European Union (eu) legislation requiring all foals born after July 1, 2009, to be identified by microchip. Microchip identification represents the best way of linking a horse to its passport, and the new requirement, which should remove some of the ambiguities possible under the current arrangements, is welcome. Again, however, there is much to consider in the detail of defra's consultation document, which asks no fewer than 23 specific questions. Matters on which views are sought include whether, as proposed, membership of the rcvs should be the minimum requirement to insert a microchip, and whether implantation of the microchip should only be allowed ‘between poll and withers in the middle of the neck in the area of the nuchal ligament’. Another question relates to proposals for recording medicines use in situations, such as an emergency, where the horse's passport may not be available at the time of treatment.

The consultation on bse testing considers the prospect that, from January 1 next year, the eu will allow the uk to raise the age above which cattle will need to be tested for bse to 48 months. It seeks views on whether this deregulatory move would be acceptable — and if not, why not — noting that any decision would require the agreement of the Board of the Food Standards Agency and health ministers. Meanwhile, the consultation on swine vesicular disease discusses proposals to introduce new uk laws to implement recent changes to European legislation, and the controls that might be applied in the event of an outbreak.

Consultation documents from defra may have been thin on the ground of late, but they seem to have returned with a vengeance. With another one on cost sharing apparently on its way, there will be plenty to think about in the weeks to come.

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