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Out with the old

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A look at some of the events in 2010

A GENERAL Election in May 2010 was followed by the formation of a new Coalition Government, heralding a new approach to animal health and much else besides. The Coalition quickly made clear that its overriding priority was to cut public spending and reduce the national deficit, which meant that the next few months was dominated by speculation about where, precisely, the axe might fall. The answer, it turned out, was just about everywhere, although when the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review was announced in October, it became clear that some departments had been hit harder than others. Defra was one of the hardest hit: it now faces cuts of 30 per cent over the next five years, and it is difficult to see how its animal health activities will not be affected.

The Coalition has promised a new approach to government. It plans a programme of reform that will ‘turn government on its head, taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities’. Quite how this will work in practice has still to become clear, although the new Government has been quick to start dismantling existing structures through a review of its arm's length bodies, an exercise dubbed ‘the bonfire of the quangos’. One outcome of this, announced in July, is that two agencies which play a vital role in protecting both animal and public health – Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) – are to be merged to form a single agency. There is logic in combining the field operations of Animal Health with the veterinary investigative and surveillance functions of the VLA and, provided the new agency is properly resourced, there could be benefits from this merger. However, other changes, such as the partial dismemberment of the Food Standards Agency and the abolition of the Health Protection Agency (which is to be incorporated into a new public health service), are more worrying.

‘The FAWC has done much to challenge the way people think about farm animal welfare over the past 30 years and it is to be hoped that, in its new incarnation, the independence of its advice can be maintained’

Another casualty of the review has been the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), which is to be reconstituted as a committee of experts in Defra. The FAWC has done much to challenge the way people think about farm animal welfare over the past 30 years and it is to be hoped that, in its new incarnation, the independence of its advice can be maintained.

As well as doing away with ‘quangos’, the Coalition has also ditched some of the old government's policies. Most notably, in September, reversing a policy that had prevailed under Labour, and fulfilling a pre-election pledge made by the Conservatives, it set out plans to include badger culling in the ‘tool box’ of measures available for tackling bovine TB in cattle in England. Although inevitably controversial, this change of direction was welcomed by the BVA, which has long argued that there is no single solution to bovine TB and that it cannot be tackled effectively without measures to control the disease in both cattle and wildlife. The Coalition's plans, which involve farmers organising and paying for the cull, have been subject to consultation, and the Government intends to announce its policy in February next year.

Plans for a pilot targeted cull of badgers in Wales suffered a set back in July when, after a legal challenge by the Badger Trust, the High Court ruled on a technicality that the proposed cull was unlawful. The Welsh Assembly Government has since unveiled new plans for a targeted cull, which form part of a concerted effort to tackle bovine TB in Wales. Also during the year, Scotland, which in 2009 was officially recognised by the EU as being free of bovine TB, introduced new rules on cattle movements to protect its TB-free status.

The Coalition Government also jettisoned a draft Animal Health Bill that had been developed by the previous Government with a view to setting up a structure that would allow interested parties to share costs and responsibilities for animal health on a more equitable basis. Nevertheless, it remains committed to the principle of responsibility and cost sharing (RCS), and the services of an independent advisory group that had been set up to make recommendations on RCS in England were retained. The advisory group's report was published last week and recommends the establishment of a small management board which would have strong external representation and be the sole source of strategic advice on animal health and welfare matters to ministers. The results of the spending review have brought the question of who should pay for animal health into sharp focus. With Defra and, it might be argued, animal health and welfare itself now banking on the outcome, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the recommendations are taken forward in the New Year.

In the meantime, the Coalition has been quick to act on some of the recommendations of another committee whose deliberations straddled the General Election. Earlier this month, following publication in October of Lord Browne's review of higher educational funding, Parliament controversially voted to raise the cap on student tuition fees in England from £3290 a year to between £6000 and £9000 a year. Despite reassurances from the Government that the new system of student loans and grants will be fairer than the current arrangements, and that graduates will not need to start paying back their loans until they are earning more than £21,000 a year, the prospect of the increase prompted widespread protest. It also caused some embarrassment to Liberal Democrat MPs in the Coalition who, before the Election, had promised to ‘scrap unfair tuition fees’ for all students taking their first degree.

‘The prospect of higher debts on graduating will influence potential applicants' decisions on whether to study veterinary medicine, and the need to pay off those debts will ultimately affect the career choices made by graduates’

The increase in tuition fees will affect all future students but, because of the length and particular demands of the veterinary course, it is likely to affect veterinary students more than most. The prospect of higher debts on graduating will influence potential applicants' decisions on whether to study veterinary medicine, and the need to pay off those debts will ultimately affect the career choices made by graduates. Both of these factors can be expected to affect the future composition of the profession and the activities undertaken in years to come.

A snapshot of the UK profession as things stand was provided in November, when the RCVS published the results of a survey it had carried out earlier in the year. The findings reflected the changing gender balance in the profession, with women, who were very much in the minority 30 years ago, now accounting for 50 per of respondents. Most vets are working in practice, with the largest proportion working in small animal practice. Most of their working time is devoted to small animals, while about 7 per cent is being spent on cattle and 10 per cent on horses. Vets now seem to be working longer hours than was indicated by a similar survey conducted four years ago. Asked whether the recession was having an effect on practice, nearly 70 per cent felt that it was, with an increase in bad debts, an increase in animal euthanasia requests and reductions in staff numbers in line with demand for services being among the effects reported.

At the BVA, there was an important development at the annual general meeting in September when members voted to change the structure of the Association's Council. The new Council will be smaller than at present and is intended to be more representative of the BVA's membership as a whole. Also in September, the BVA announced that, with support from Defra, it had appointed a chairman to a new Veterinary Development Council, which was being set up to explore ways of improving the provision of farm animal veterinary services.

Relations between the BVA and the agency Animal Health took a turn for the worse in May when Animal Health suddenly announced that it intended to move to a competitive tendering system to procure the services of private practitioners to carry out Official Veterinarian (OV) duties on behalf of the Government. The introduction of tendering would put an end to an agreement which has been in place for many years under which Animal Health and the BVA negotiate a standard fee structure that is then applied to all practitioner OVs, and would mark a fundamental shift in the relationship between private practitioners and the state. As well as affecting the provision of farm veterinary services, the proposed changes could have implications for veterinary surveillance and undermine efforts to control disease. They could also affect the ability of practices to provide the extra capacity that is needed to deal with national disease emergencies. In September, the Association called on the Government to undertake an impact assessment, and took the unusual step of urging its members to lobby their MPs about the potential consequences.

There were a number of developments in the small animal field in 2010, including the formation of an independent, non-statutory Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding, as recommended by Professor Sir Patrick Bateson in a report on this subject that was published in January.

May saw the introduction of a new Control of Dogs Act in Scotland. The new Act was welcomed by the BVA and others campaigning for reform of dangerous dogs legislation, because it includes measures that can be applied to irresponsible owners and because it focuses on the actions of dogs rather than their appearance. In London, the Government has said that it intends to tackle the problem of irresponsible ownership of dangerous dogs, and that it will be announcing its approach early in the New Year. In November, it published the results of a public consultation, carried out by Defra under the previous administration, which suggested that most people and interested parties believe that breed-specific legislation is ineffective in protecting the public from dangerous dogs, and that breed-specific legislation should be repealed.

‘As well as affecting the provision of farm veterinary services, the proposed changes could have implications for veterinary surveillance and undermine efforts to control disease. They could also affect the ability of practices to provide the extra capacity that is needed to deal with national disease emergencies’

In March, the Welsh Assembly approved new legislation banning the use of electronic shock collars on dogs and cats in Wales.

2010 marked the 10th anniversary of the UK's Pet Travel Scheme, although it also became clear that the scheme in its present form is unlikely to continue for much longer. At present, a derogation under EU law allows the UK to apply stricter controls on pets entering the country than most other EU member states. The derogation was extended during the year, to the end of 2011, but after that the UK's rules will be expected to move closer to those applied by other member states.

At an international level, the ‘one health’ concept received a boost in April when the World Organisation for Animal Health, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization issued a joint document aimed at strengthening collaboration between the veterinary and medical professions at the animal/human disease interface. In October, the FAO announced that it was ending field operations under the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme, the first stage in a process that should culminate next year in an official declaration that rinderpest has been eradicated globally.

In the UK, however, 2010 has been dominated by the change of government and the shift in policy that has ensued. As the year draws to a close it is clear that the Coalition has been quick to dispense with many old policies and structures; the picture may be becoming a little less blurred, but details of what will replace them have still to emerge.

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