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Separating party lines

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AT the last General Election, in 2005, animal health and welfare barely got a mention in the manifestos of the three main political parties. This was in contrast to the election campaigns of 2001, when the foot-and- mouth-disease epidemic was at its peak, and of 1997, when political battles were being fought over food safety and BSE. This time around, one again has to look hard to find any reference to animal health in the manifestos, although animal welfare makes brief appearances in all three.

Labour notes that it has banned foxhunting and animal testing for cosmetics, and that it intends to bring forward further animal welfare measures. The Conservatives, meanwhile, say that the Hunting Act has proved unworkable and that they would give Parliament the opportunity to repeal it on a free vote. As well as promoting high standards of farm animal welfare, they would work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research, promote responsible pet ownership through codes of practice under the Animal Welfare Act, and target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto doesn’t mention fox hunting. However, it says they would merge existing ‘quangos’ to establish an Animal Protection Commission to investigate abuses, educate the public and enforce the law; end testing of household products on animals; and work for proper enforcement of live animal transport regulations across the EU.

Only the Conservatives’ manifesto makes specific mention of an animal health issue. As part of a package of measures, they would introduce a ‘carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine TB’.

None of the manifestos places particular emphasis on food security, which is surprising given the increased attention on this issue over the past year or so. Where farming and food production is discussed, it tends to be in the context of safeguarding the environment and ‘greener’ living, which, along with tackling climate change, all three parties seem to regard as a priority. All three are keen to see further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, to enhance the natural environment and ensure that food production systems are sustainable; they also want to reduce red tape and achieve a better deal for farmers and consumers. Taken together, these are fairly ambitious goals and, perhaps not surprisingly, the manifestos differ in the amount of detail on how it will all be achieved.

The three main parties also seem to agree on the importance of science and innovation in helping to boost the economy and in tackling the challenges ahead. Labour says it is committed to a ‘ring-fenced’ science budget in the next comprehensive spending review, and that it intends to provide ‘focused investment for Technology and Innovation Centres to develop technologies where the UK has world-leading expertise’. The Conservatives talk of initiating ‘a multi-year Science and Research Budget to provide a stable investment climate for Research Councils’ and of improving research and development tax credits which will be refocused on ‘high-tech companies, small businesses and new start-ups’. The Liberal Democrats say they would respect the convention that the science budget, once allocated through the Comprehensive Spending Review, is not used for other purposes. They would also ensure that decisions on the funding of research projects are ‘made on the basis of peer review, not Whitehall interferences’, and ‘reform science funding to ensure that genuinely innovative research is identified and supported’.

On higher education, the three main parties seem keen to increase participation and encourage fair access, although, given the state of the wider economy, questions must arise about the extent to which these activities will be funded. One of the three – the Liberal Democrats – plans to scrap ‘unfair university tuition fees’ for all students taking their first degree.

In general terms, the three manifestos cover much the same ground, although they do make clear how the approaches of the three parties would differ. Reading them together is a somewhat mind-numbing experience but, in terms of highlighting the different approaches, is more revealing than a television debate between party leaders. Clearly there are more issues at stake in the election than animal health and, in this respect, the lack of attention devoted to this subject isn’t too surprising. Indeed, in some ways, compared with the situation in 1997 and 2001, it could be regarded as a good thing, in reflecting the current lack of any immediate crises. It is to be hoped that this situation continues, and that future crises can be averted, whichever government is elected.

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