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A key appointment

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ENGLAND'S new Animal Health and Welfare Board is intended to bring a fresh approach to the way animal health and welfare is managed in England, so the announcement that its first chairman has been appointed is a significant development that could shape English policies in this area for years to come.

It is 10 years since the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 highlighted the importance of finding new ways to safeguard and to pay for animal health, and seven years since the principles of responsibility and cost sharing were enshrined in Great Britain's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. Progress in agreeing ways in which responsibility and cost sharing can be introduced has since been slow, and a key aim of the board will be to take the concept forward.

The new board is based on the recommendations of the independent England Advisory Group on Responsibility and Cost Sharing, which published its report last year (VR, December 18, 2010, vol 167, pp 950, 951–952). As envisaged by the advisory group's chair, Rosemary Radcliffe, it would bring a new approach to partnership working between the public and private sectors, aimed at reducing the risk and cost of animal disease and improving the effectiveness and value for money of policy delivery (VR, December 18, 2010, vol 167, p 983). Made up of about 12 members, it would be an integral part of Defra's decision-making machinery. It would take a strategic role in relation to animal health and welfare matters, and would be the sole source of strategic advice to ministers.

The board would consist of 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 be expected to have the respect of the various stakeholders in animal health, as well as a clear understanding of the issues ‘on the ground’.

Announcing his decision to establish the board in April, Jim Paice, the minister for agriculture and food, said that it would be part of the internal structure of Defra and that the aim would be to ‘build trust between government and animal keepers and strengthen arrangements for working together to build a new partnership’ (VR, May 7, 2011, vol 168, pp 468, 469–470). Under its terms of reference, it would be responsible for ‘strategic animal health and welfare policy and oversight of its delivery in relation to England, taking account of public health considerations’. It would be the principal source of advice to Defra ministers on animal health and welfare policy, and would make recommendations on the health and welfare of all kept animals, including farm animals, horses and pets. However, final decisions would rest with Defra ministers.

As the principal rather than the sole source of advice to ministers the new board may not have quite as much ‘clout’ as originally envisaged by the advisory group, and this could make the difference between it being seen as really driving policy on animal health or as just another committee of Defra. Nevertheless, judging from the responsibilities set out in its terms of reference, it will still play a hugely significant role. These include setting strategic and budgetary priorities for animal health within the available ‘budgetary envelope’; developing key policies and how they should be funded; assessing the risks of animal disease and how to manage them; and determining research and surveillance priorities. It will also be responsible for commissioning policy delivery; approving the operational plans of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency in relation to animal health and welfare in England; and developing and reviewing contingency plans for dealing with new disease outbreaks.

Given the breadth of its responsibilities and the need to engage fully with all the relevant stakeholders, the composition of the board will be vital to its success. Following a call for applicants in April, Michael Seals, a livestock and arable farmer who was responsible for establishing the Fallen Stock Company, has been appointed as chairman and other board members are expected to be appointed in October. Although this is not intended to be a representative body, there will clearly be a need to achieve a suitable skills mix and, given the key role of vets in relation to the health and welfare of all kept species, it remains essential that veterinary expertise is appropriately represented on the board.

The board is expected to hold its first meeting towards the end of this year. The aim, quite rightly, is to establish trust among stakeholders and agree on responsibilities before determining how costs should be shared. Nevertheless, the need to find workable arrangements for safeguarding animal health in the light of Defra's shrinking ‘budgetary envelope’ is pressing and, after nearly a decade of discussion, it is in everyone's interest that the cost sharing issue is resolved.

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