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New government, new policies

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DETAILS are still fairly thin on the ground but, with the publication of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition's ‘programme for government’ last week, * the policies of the new Government are starting to become a little clearer. Defra, for one, has been quick to publish a list of priorities, and the coalition document gives some indication of policies in other areas such as higher education and innovation. Quite how and when the policies will be implemented remains to be seen, as the document makes clear that the most urgent task facing the Government is tackling the nation's debts, and that its deficit reduction programme will take precedence over any of the other measures described. The new Government has already set out how it intends to reduce public spending by £6.2 billion in the current financial year and has left no room for doubt that more cuts will follow.

On animal health and welfare, the document makes clear that controlling bovine TB, responsibility and cost sharing, and promoting responsible pet ownership will be part of the Government's agenda. Specifically, it states, ‘We will promote high standards of farm animal welfare. We will end the testing of household products on animals and work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research. We will promote responsible pet ownership by introducing effective codes of practice under the Animal Welfare Act, and will ensure that enforcement agencies target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs.’

In contrast to the previous administration, which effectively ruled out badger culling as an option in controlling bovine TB, the new Government says that ‘As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis.’ It also intends to bring forward a motion on a free vote to allow the House of Commons to express its view on repeal of the Hunting Act.

Given that the last administration had gone so far as to publish a draft Bill on responsibility and cost sharing, including plans to establish a new non-departmental public body for animal health, the coalition's statement on this issue seems a little vague. It simply states, ‘We will investigate ways to share with livestock keepers the responsibility for preparing for and dealing with outbreaks of disease.’

Other commitments include reducing the regulatory burden on farmers, and increasing support for hill farmers. The coalition also intends to ‘introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from and its environmental impact’.

Understandably, perhaps, given the differences that existed between the two parties before the election, the section of the document dealing with higher education is fairly noncommittal, with policy decisions being deferred until completion of Lord Browne's review of higher education funding and student finance, which was started last November. Any recommendations in the review will be judged against the need to ‘increase social mobility, take into account the impact on student debt, ensure a properly funded university sector, improve the quality of teaching, advance scholarship, and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds’.

The document is worryingly devoid of specific policies on science. As far as innovation is concerned, it sees business as the driver of growth and innovation and sets great store on reducing the regulatory burden on businesses. The document does state, however, that the Government ‘will ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity’.

Such clarity as is available from the document is somewhat obscured by the uncertainty generated by the first round of cuts. Defra and its agencies will be contributing £162 million to the savings identified by the Government for 2010/11, amounting to 5.5 per cent of its budget. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which has responsibility for higher education and science, will be losing £836 million. The Chancellor has said that frontline services will not be affected by these savings, and one can only hope that, as far as services relating to animal and public health are concerned, he is right.

In their introduction to the document, the two party leaders note a shared conviction that the days of ‘big government’ are over, and express confidence that, by creating instead a ‘Big Society’, in which power is less centralised and there is less top-down bureaucratic control, they can take the country through difficult times to better days ahead. It's too early to judge, but it is already clear that some fairly big challenges are in store.

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