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Clarity needed

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DEFRA launched its consultation on responsibility and cost sharing, including proposals for a new body to oversee animal health, at the end of March. Comments have been invited by the end of June. The Government seems to have its heart set on sharing the costs and responsibilities of animal health with the industry but, unlike some consultations, this cannot be regarded as just another bureaucratic exercise. Defra’s consultation document heralds a significant change in the arrangements for safeguarding animal health in England, with implications for the rest of the UK, and the outcome will affect the way animal disease outbreaks are dealt with and paid for for years to come (VR, April 4, 2009, vol 164, pp 409, 410-411).

The BVA has misgivings about many aspects of the proposals. However, it will continue to seek views from across the veterinary profession to help produce a clear and considered response to present to Defra before the consultation closes.

Several of the Association’s concerns relate to the scope of the proposed new body for animal health. This would operate at ‘arm’s length’ from government and take on all of Defra’s animal health responsibilities, but not responsibility for animal welfare. The Government recognises that the welfare of animals is inextricably linked to their health. However, the consultation document suggests that responsibility for animal welfare should remain with Defra, apparently on the grounds that the public has a particular interest in welfare so ministers need to retain control. The BVA is not convinced of the logic of this, particularly given that the document also talks of new working arrangements having to be devised to overcome the problem of responsibilities being separated. It seems odd to suggest that issues of public interest should not be dealt with by non-ministerial bodies: the public has an interest in food safety, for example, but that didn’t stop the formation of the Food Standards Agency. It might make more sense to include animal welfare in the new body and develop working arrangements that would allow ministers to keep a hand on welfare policy.

The relationship with ministers generally is something the BVA believes needs to be clarified. There is a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities in the event of a major disease outbreak and the proposals, as they stand, appear to put at risk the single line command structure essential for a rapid response.

The role of Defra’s Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) will also need to be clarified, and not just in terms of responding to disease outbreaks. The CVO has responsibilities beyond England for the UK, and for representing the UK in the EU and further afield. The ways in which a CVO based in the new English body will fulfil those wider responsibilities must not only be made clear; they will also have to be agreed to the satisfaction of the authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in Europe.

Quite how costs will be shared is primarily a matter for the Government and industry to decide; from a veterinary perspective, the main concern must be to safeguard animal health and welfare, and also public health. That said, a thriving livestock sector is essential for the wider rural economy, and the public clearly has an interest in ensuring that the environment is protected and that food supplies are maintained. The Government must continue to invest in animal health and welfare and ensure that funding is available for disease surveillance and research. Its proposals must not be allowed to damage the viability and competitiveness of English livestock farmers, particularly in relation to the rest of the EU, where proposals for cost sharing have still to be decided. Any cost sharing arrangements should include incentives to improve on-farm biosecurity and encourage good practice.

The idea of the Government working in partnership with farming and other interests on animal health remains attractive, but the BVA would like to see more detail in the proposals on how this might be achieved. This must be a genuine partnership, with shared decision making, independent of day-to- day politics and based on the best scientific evidence available.

Despite having pushed the matter for some time, and its apparent determination to move forward, the Government still faces difficulties in getting the principles of responsibility and cost sharing accepted. From the point of view of animal health and welfare, there is little consolation in the fact that, even if the principles are accepted, important details will need to be resolved.

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