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DEVOLUTION has already had a significant impact on the way animal health and welfare is managed in the UK as England, Scotland and Wales have adopted increasingly divergent policies on a number of issues, ranging from the control of bovine TB and prevention of bluetongue on the one hand to the docking of dogs' tails on the other. The process seems to have accelerated of late and, 10 years after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, if the recent report from the Calman Commission on how well devolution has worked in Scotland is anything to go by, it is likely to get faster still.

The Calman Commission's report is not directly concerned with animal health but deals with devolutionary issues generally, considering matters such as devolved taxation and how cooperation between the UK governments and parliaments can be improved. However, many of its recommendations are clearly relevant, including calls for a more structured approach to intergovernmental working and representation of interests in Europe. It also makes a specific recommendation on animal health, namely, that funding for policy relating to animal health should be devolved, while responsibility for funding exotic disease outbreaks should be retained at a UK level.

It is not altogether clear how far the recommendations will be taken forward, but the Calman Commission's report is likely to be highly influential. More than anything else, it makes clear that there is no going back on devolution and that policies will continue to diverge.

This and other developments make this year's BVA Congress, to be held in Cardiff from September 24 to 26, all the more relevant. With the theme ‘Together forever?’, the congress will consider what devolution means for animal health, and the implications for veterinary practitioners and the profession in general. It may well be, as the BVA President remarked in a speech in Scotland last month, that ‘devolved responses to rural affairs and animal welfare offer the four countries of the UK the chance to watch and learn from each other through greater cooperation’ and ‘allow each to pursue an aim to become a shining example of good practice in its own area’. At the same time, however, unless efforts are properly coordinated, there is also potential for confusion and argument, and for increased risk of disease, given that disease does not respect boundaries and Great Britain at least is an epidemiological whole. The issues will be addressed in a debate at the congress involving the four chief veterinary officers of the UK, called ‘Who will take the high road?’.

A debate on sharing responsibilities and costs on animal health promises to be equally topical, both in the context of devolution and also in its own right. Despite opposition from many quarters, Defra appears determined to press ahead with the proposals for responsibility and cost sharing outlined in its consultation document on the subject in March (see VR, April 4, 2009, vol 164, p 410). The latest evidence of this came only this week, with an announcement from Defra that it is establishing a working group to advise on how best to develop the new independent body for animal health that it proposes should oversee the arrangements, just seven days after the period allowed for comments on its consultation document closed (see p 35 of this issue).

Other ‘contentious issues’ to be debated at the congress include inherited disease in dogs, the future of the Pet Travel Scheme, and whether the eradication of bovine TB is actually feasible. Further debates will examine the role of extramural studies in veterinary education, the position of horses in the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, and issues surrounding the reclassification of commonly used veterinary medicines. Following the successful format of previous congresses, additional CPD will be available in sessions organised by BVA specialist divisions and other organisations. Full details of the programme, and information on how to register for the congress, are available at www.bva.co.uk/bva_congress.aspx

Despite increased specialisation in the veterinary profession, and continuing diversification of the roles vets perform, the unique combination of skills that makes vets so useful to society continues to be recognised and the profession can still be regarded as a remarkably coherent whole. In the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture at the congress, Professor Sandy Trees, a former dean of Liverpool veterinary school and the current president of the RCVS, will try to identify the defining characteristics of a vet and what still binds the profession together. Like the world in which it must operate, the veterinary profession is changing rapidly, and changes to the ways in which veterinary activity is regulated remain a distinct possibility. Will the veterinary profession be together forever? The congress at Cardiff should provide a chance to find out.

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