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Welcome to the AHVLA

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IT probably reflects the fact that the agency has just been formed, but putting ‘AHVLA’ into Google earlier this week prompted the question ‘Did you mean DVLA?’.

The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) – not to be confused with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency – came into being on April 1. It has been created by merging the agency Animal Health with the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA). This was one of the first of many organisational changes announced by the Government when it embarked on a review of its ‘arm's length’ bodies shortly after the General Election last May (VR, July 3, 2010, vol 167, p 2).

There is logic in combining the field operations of Animal Health with the veterinary investigative and disease surveillance functions of the VLA. Indeed, in some respects it marks a return to the situation that existed before 1995, when the two functions were combined in the Animal Health and Veterinary Group of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, the merger is worrying, not least because of the financial pressure on Defra and because of continuing uncertainty about how the agency will evolve. A question and answer document on the AHVLA's website (www.defra.gov.uk/ahvla) seeks to explain how the new agency will operate, but many of the answers seem rather vague.

Defra's budget is being cut by 30 per cent over the next five years, so the financial pressures are real. However, the question and answer document states that the merger is not ‘simply a cost saving measure’. Instead, it says, ‘the main rationale is to improve the resilience of the combined agency to continue to deliver an effective and professional service in the light of the government's Spending Review.’ It is hard to see the distinction here. The question and answer document adds that ‘modest savings will be made from duplicated functions, estates and creating more efficient ways of working’. Meanwhile, a Framework document for the new agency indicates that an early task will be to reassess and possibly rationalise its regional presence at different sites in England, Scotland and Wales.

The AHVLA will work across Great Britain on behalf of Defra, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Government, and will also have some UK functions. Quite how all this will work in practice following the recent decision to devolve some of Defra's animal health budgets to Scotland and Wales has still to become clear, although devolution will obviously have implications for the way in which the agency operates. The activities of the agency will also be affected by plans to introduce responsibility and cost sharing for animal health, but the Government has still to clarify its position on this.

As part of the merger, about 50 veterinary and scientific advisory staff will be transferred from ‘core-Defra’ to the new agency, which will take full responsibility for advising the Food and Farming Group in Defra on the veterinary and scientific evidence base for policy development. This will push the provision of advice further away from the centre of government and, in the short term at least, there is likely to be uncertainty about roles and responsibilities as the new arrangements evolve.

The AHVLA itself seems remarkably upbeat about the changes. In a press release it notes that its constituent agencies both work to combat animal diseases, and that ‘bringing together their services, expertise and scientific capability will create a stronger organisation capable of providing a range of vital services to the livestock farming industry and related sectors’. It says that ‘the merger will increase the resilience of the combined agency's operations in a difficult financial climate’ and that joining the two organisations ‘creates new and wider opportunities to identify more cost effective, flexible and robust ways of working.’

Caroline Spelman, the secretary of state at Defra, says that the creation of the new agency will reinforce the delivery of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy and offers ‘a timely opportunity to enhance the resilience and effectiveness of our animal health and welfare scientific and regulatory activities. It also delivers our commitment to simplify the delivery network. Integrating these activities more closely will be of key interest and benefit to all the Agency's customers especially across Great Britain.’

The minister is right in suggesting that the merger will be of interest. Between them, Animal Health and the VLA play a vital role in safeguarding animal and public health and it is essential that this capability is maintained.

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