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DEFRA finally launched its consultation on responsibility and cost sharing this week. It never seemed likely that the proposals would be welcomed by farmers, and this has turned out to be the case. Farmers' reaction to proposals that they should in future pay half of Defra's current costs of exotic disease preparedness and surveillance by means of a levy, as well as half of the costs of dealing with exotic disease outbreaks through some sort of insurance scheme, is understandable, and this is clearly a significant issue. However, it must not be allowed to overshadow another important element of the consultation — proposals for a new body to oversee animal health. This in itself would be a significant development, and in this respect the consultation could herald one of the biggest shake-ups in arrangements for safeguarding animal health in England, and perhaps the rest of the UK, in living memory.
The proposals set out in the document broadly reflect those outlined in a presentation by Defra to the BVA's Council last December (see VR, December 13, 2008, vol 163, p 699; December 20/27, 2008, vol 163, pp 734-735). However, they are presented much more bullishly than at any stage previously and also go into more detail.
Essentially, the Government plans to establish a new independent body for animal health which will take on all of Defra's current responsibilities for animal health, including international commitments, but not its responsibilities for animal welfare, which will remain with Defra. Whether the new body will be a non-ministerial department, like the Food Standards Agency, or a non-departmental public body, like the Environment Agency, has still to be decided, but it will have a chief executive and be governed by a board of eight to 10 members. Ministers will be accountable to Parliament for the new body and for its funding, including levels of public spending.
The new body will have responsibility for all animal health policy and delivery in England, as well as some policies covering Great Britain and the UK, with delivery continuing through existing organisations such as Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, subject to current reviews. The Chief Veterinary Officer will advise the new body and be employed by it.
The idea that responsibility for animal health and welfare should be separated caused consternation among BVA Council members when it was raised by Defra at the meeting in December — not surprisingly, as the two are interdependent. Concern about this proposal is unlikely to be allayed by the explanation given in the consultation document, namely, that ‘animal welfare has its own distinct rationale for policy and one in which the public at large has a particular interest’, not least because the document itself describes the welfare of animals as being inextricably linked to their health. A comment elsewhere in the document that the new body's objectives will ‘fulfil the relevant aims of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy — a lasting and continuous improvement in the health of kept animals, having regard to their welfare, while protecting public health, the economy, and the environment from the effect of animal diseases' simply adds to the impression that Defra's thinking on this issue is confused.
There must be concern, too, about how the new body will work with the devolved regions and how its policies might dovetail with the increasingly divergent policies emerging in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The consultation document devotes a specific chapter to this subject but this serves mainly to highlight the complexity of the situation; it certainly makes clear that important issues, such as how budgets will be allocated and activities coordinated, and how UK policies might be presented in Europe, have still to be resolved.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of creating a new independent body to look after animal health, but its responsibilities and relationships with other bodies need to be properly and clearly defined and, crucially, it will need proper funding. The consultation document devotes a good deal of space to discussing how disease surveillance and control might be paid for in the future but there is no getting away from the fact that it is difficult to put a price on animal health and that, in trying to estimate the cost of future disease outbreaks, it is attempting to predict the unpredictable. There is also no escaping the fact that, as it moves to establish a new stream of funding for animal health, Defra's own contribution is dwindling. This should be of concern to everyone with an interest in animal health and not just the farmers and perhaps other animal keepers who will be expected to pay for it. The Government has been pressing for responsibility and cost sharing for some time, but it now seems determined to move forward. Many points will need to be made in the three months allowed for the consultation.