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Shifting responsibilities

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GIVEN the history of debate on the subject, and the implications for the way animal health and welfare are managed in the future, the Government's announcement on how it intends to move forward with responsibility and cost sharing in England was remarkably low key. Coming in the week between the Easter and May bank holidays, the announcement made clear that a decision to set up an Animal Health and Welfare Board which will be responsible for the strategic development of policy in England has been taken, and will not be subject to further consultation. Indeed, Defra is already looking for a chairperson and board members, and applications have been invited by May 24.

The board will be structured along the lines recommended by the Advisory Group on Responsibility and Cost Sharing, whose report on the subject was published in December last year (VR, December 18, 2010, vol 167, pp 951–952). It will be made up of about 12 members, comprising five senior Defra officials and seven to eight external members including the chair. This isn't exactly the same ratio as recommended by the advisory group, although external members will still be in the majority.

The board will not be set up as a non-departmental public body or arm's length body, but will form part of the internal structure of Defra. It will have responsibility for strategic animal health and welfare policy and oversight of delivery of this policy in England, but whether it turns out to have quite as much clout as envisaged by the advisory group remains to be seen. The advisory group recommended that the board should be the sole source of departmental advice on strategic animal health and welfare matters, while the terms of reference for the board published by Defra last week state that it should be the principal source of advice. This may seem neither here nor there but, depending on how things work out, could make the difference between the board being seen as really driving policy, or as just another committee of Defra. Clearly, the composition of the board will be crucial to its effectiveness and the respect in which it is held and, given the key role of vets in relation to animal health, it would seem essential that veterinary representation is included. Final decisions on animal health and welfare policy will remain with ministers.

Wisely, the Government's announcement included little specific reference to cost sharing: it was a clear recommendation of the advisory group that arrangements for sharing responsibilities should be established before cost sharing could be developed. In a written ministerial statement on April 26, Jim Paice, the agriculture minister, simply noted the advisory group's recommendation that cost sharing should be taken forward in stages once responsibility sharing arrangements were in place, and said he would be looking to the board for advice on funding arrangements as it develops animal health and welfare policy for the future. That said, cost sharing arrangements have to be developed at some stage soon, to avoid a funding vacuum in which vital activities are under-resourced. The terms of reference for the board state that its responsibilities will include ‘setting the strategic policy and budget priorities within the available budget envelope’ and ‘development of key policies and how they should be funded (including where appropriate charging regimes for funding these policies)’. Other responsibilities listed in the terms of reference – which include setting priorities for surveillance and research, as well as contingency planning – give an indication of the scope of the board's remit and show just how crucial its role will be (see pp 469–470 of this issue).

Mr Paice explained that, although the external members of the board would serve in an individual capacity, each would have responsibility for engaging with a set of stakeholder groups and ensuring that the views of these groups were articulated in the decision-making process. The aim was to build trust between government and animal keepers and strengthen arrangements for working together to develop a true partnership.

He said of the new board, ‘This is a completely new way of working. It replaces the old ways, where the people most affected by decisions were kept at arm's length from policy making on those subjects. This is about the Big Society not just existing in our communities, but in the heart of Government – helping to put the decisions in the hands of those who are doing the work on the ground.’ This puts a different slant on the concept of the Big Society as explained up till now, but there is no doubt that trust and genuine partnership working will be vital, both to the success of the board and to safeguarding animal health and welfare in the future.

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