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Hoping for the best

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The outcome of the General Election may have been less than clear but at some stage soon government needs to get back to business. As far as animal health and welfare are concerned, a number of issues are pressing. In the BVA’s view, three issues should be high on the agenda: tackling bovine TB; addressing the health and welfare issues of dog breeding; and securing the future of animal health in the UK by sorting out the arrangements for responsibility and cost sharing.

On bovine TB, the BVA considers the current control strategy inadequate and has been lobbying politicians for a targeted badger cull alongside stricter cattle controls for some time. It believes that targeted and managed badger culling is necessary in carefully selected areas where badgers are regarded as a significant contributor to the persistent presence of the disease. It supports the proposed badger cull in Wales and hopes that similar measures might soon be deployed in England.

With regard to dog breeding, the BVA has been working with the Kennel Club and animal welfare charities to start to make the changes necessary to improve the health and welfare of purebred dogs and to tackle some of the problems highlighted in the television programme ‘Pedigree Dogs Exposed’ in 2008. However, this will inevitably be a long-term process and it will require a commitment from politicians to help move things forward. Reports from Professor Sir Patrick Bateson (VR, January 23, 2010, vol 166, pp 90, 91-92), the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (VR, November 7, 2009, vol 165, pp 546-547) and the RSPCA have all identified areas for change and improvement, but it will take political will and financial resources to implement the recommendations that have been made. In the longer term, there is a need to consider breeding issues in other species, too.

The question of how the arrangements for safeguarding animal health and welfare in the UK should be organised, and who should meet the costs, has been under discussion ever since the Government published its Animal Health and Welfare Strategy in 2004. However, with Defra having published a draft Animal Health Bill setting out proposed arrangements for England (VR, January 30, 2010, vol 166, pp 124, 125), the issue is coming to a head. Animal health and the control of disease outbreaks need to be properly resourced, and the BVA is not against the stated principles of responsibility and cost sharing, namely, better prevention, control and management of disease. However, it believes that the proposed legislation is not the best way to achieve this and should be scrapped by the new administration. In particular, it believes that the proposed arrangement whereby responsibility for policy on animal health and animal welfare would be separated, with responsibility for welfare remaining with Defra while responsibility for animal health is transferred to a new nondepartmental public body, is nonsensical, as animal health and welfare are inextricably linked. What is needed is a structure that recognises this link, that ensures that the Chief Veterinary Officer has a powerful voice, and that promotes better health and welfare for all animals.

There was scant direct reference to animal welfare in the election manifestos of the three main political parties, and even less to animal health, although the manifestos did deal with a number of broader issues that will affect veterinary activity generally. They included farming and food production (usually in the context of safeguarding the environment and ‘greener’ living), a desire for further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, and plans to cut red tape for farmers and businesses. Importantly, for a profession which is knowledge-based, they also outlined different approaches to higher education and science and innovation. Although the manifestos covered much the same ground, they did make clear how the policies of the three main parties would differ, not least with regard to cutting public spending, civil service reform and how best to reinvigorate the economy.

There is a need continually to invest in animal health but there is a tendency for this to be forgotten between national disease outbreaks, often with severe economic consequences. The new government will doubtless have other priorities but animal health must not be neglected. It is probably too much to hope for, but it would be nice to think that, whatever form the government takes following an inconclusive election, the overall approach combines the best elements of the policies advocated by the three main parties beforehand.

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