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IT has taken the best part of a decade to get there, and by a somewhat circuitous route, but the report of the independent England Advisory Group on Responsibility and Cost Sharing (RCS), which was published this week, could hardly be more timely. Nearly 10 years after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 spectacularly highlighted the importance of safeguarding animal health, and six years after the principles of RCS were enshrined in Great Britain's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS), there is no doubt that progress is needed. Meanwhile, with funding for animal health already being reduced, and that process set to accelerate following the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review, it becomes all the more important that a workable solution is found.
The advisory group was set up under the previous administration in 2009 when the Government already seemed to have made up its mind on the subject and had even gone so far as to produce a draft Bill (VR, January 30, 2010, vol 166, pp 124, 125). The draft Bill has since been dropped by the new Government which, given the unpopularity of its proposals, is probably just as well. The advisory group's recommendations are markedly different. They seem likely to find favour with the new Government, which has made clear its disdain for cumbersome, bureaucratic ‘quangos’ of the kind originally proposed and seems keen on the idea of people taking more responsibility for tackling problems themselves. In an article on p 983 of this issue, Rosemary Radcliffe, the advisory group's chair, sets out the thinking behind its recommendations and outlines the structure proposed.
Rather than setting up a new non-departmental public body, the advisory group suggests establishing a small management board, with about 12 members, which would be an integral part of Defra's decision-making machinery. It would take a strategic role in relation to animal health and welfare issues, and would be the sole source of the department's strategic advice to ministers. Ministers would not be obliged to take its advice but, if they chose not to, would be expected to explain why.
The board would be made up of key Defra officials and a majority of external members, with an external member as chairman. Board members would be chosen for their collective expertise, rather than as representatives of specific groups, but would need to have the respect of the various stakeholders in animal health as well as a clear understanding of the issues ‘on the ground’. Although no specific ‘slots’ are envisaged, it would be extraordinary if vets were not involved. As the advisory group remarks, ‘The veterinary profession is key to animal health and welfare … Vets are uniquely placed to help animal owners and are increasingly gearing their services towards the prevention of disease …’
The group believes that the overall aim of RCS is ‘to reduce the risk and cost of animal disease and improve the welfare of kept animals’. Also, it says, there is a need to rebuild and maintain trust between animal keepers and Defra, and to improve the effectiveness and value for money of policy and delivery. It rightly points out that it will not be possible to decide on how costs should be shared without first establishing clear arrangements for sharing responsibilities, and outlines the stages in which the board might proceed. However, it also notes that there is a degree of urgency about the situation, not least in the light of the cuts to Defra's budget, and suggests that animal keepers face a stark choice – ‘whether to leave the decisions on what and where to cut to government, or to participate in responsibility sharing and thereby influence the outcomes in terms of what is done, how it is done and who should pay’.
Although not prescriptive about how costs should be shared, the advisory group rejects the idea of an animal disease levy, as proposed in the draft Animal Health Bill, suggesting that more might be achieved by exploring the option of insurance instead. It has also rejected the previous government's idea that responsibilities for policy on animal health and welfare should be separated, which caused consternation at the time.
The Government intends to consider the recommendations with a view to making proposals in the New Year. In the meantime, it is to be hoped that animal keepers, too, respond positively to the challenges set out by the advisory group, whose members represented a wide range of industry stakeholders. The spending cuts may have sharpened the focus, but the need to make progress was already clear. The last thing that anyone needs is to see a vacuum developing in animal health, with funding diminishing and a mechanism for deciding on policy still to be agreed.