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FOR some years now, Defra seems to have offered a revolving door as far as ministerial posts are concerned. The last years of the Labour administration saw frequent changes in the ministerial team and now, after a brief period of stability following the formation of the Coalition government in 2010, things again seem to have reverted to type. The Prime Minister's Cabinet reshuffle earlier this month has resulted in three of Defra's team of four ministers being replaced, with only one of them, Richard Benyon, the parliamentary undersecretary for natural environment, water and rural affairs, remaining in post.
Ministers come and go but the challenges remain and there is a need ensure some continuity in approach. Not least among the challenges is tackling bovine TB and, following the announcement this week that a license has been issued allowing a pilot cull of badgers in an area of Gloucestershire, this particular issue will provide an early test of ministers' resolve. Despite all the controversy, which has been much in evidence this week, control of badgers represents only part of Defra's strategy for controlling TB, which already includes the testing and slaughter of cattle as well as controls on cattle movements, and here, too, there are issues to address. The challenges were set out in a report published last week by the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHBWE). They include a worsensing disease situation and a disease control budget that is reducing, and the board is seeking views from vets and farmers on new ways of working to tackle the problem (VR, September 15, 2012, vol 171, pp 256, 258). The AHBWE was set up last year to advise Defra ministers on animal health matters and take forward plans on responsibility and cost sharing and, judging from some of the ideas floated in the report, it may be about to start making its mark. There may be advantages to new approaches and new ways of working. However, these need to be fully and openly explored and ministers must take care to ensure that, in their enthusiasm to make savings, they do not rush into changes that could make a difficult situation worse.
Ministers should also proceed carefully with regard to veterinary disease surveillance. This is another area where changes are afoot with a view to improving efficiency and cutting costs, and one where the costs of getting it wrong could greatly exceed any short-term savings.
In terms of safeguarding animal health, devolution presents challenges for ministers which, just over a decade ago, barely existed. There may be advantages to devolution in that policies can be tailored to local circumstances and each administration can potentially learn from the other. However, disease tends not to respect national boundaries and attention must be devoted to ensuring that activities are coordinated, particularly at time when England and the devolved administrations increasingly seem to be going separate ways.
One issue on which Defra ministers might usefully learn from the devolved administrations is the welfare aspects of dog breeding. Wales and Northern Ireland are both in the process of reviewing legislation on dog breeding but Defra has no plans to do this and is in danger of being left behind. In the meantime, they really must try to do something about irresponsible dog ownership, in particular the Dangerous Dogs Act, which continues fail both dogs and the public and needs to be overhauled. Following a disappointing set of proposals on this issue from Defra in April, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is currently holding an inquiry into the Government's dog control and welfare policies, which may help to concentrate minds.
Another issue which should be high on ministers' agenda is the welfare of food animals at slaughter, including the welfare of animals slaughtered without stunning. A new EU regulation aiming to protect animals at the time of killing is due to apply from the beginning of next year. This includes a derogation that will continue to allow animals to be slaughtered without stunning in the case of religious slaughter and ministers will have to decide how it is implemented. The BVA's view is that, on animal welfare grounds, all animals should be stunned before slaughter but, if slaughter without stunning continues to be permitted, food from this source should be clearly labelled so consumers know what they are buying.
European decisions on animal health and welfare have a significant impact on developments in the UK and ministers must make every effort to ensure the right decisions are made. Important issues in the year ahead include plans for a new Animal Health Law and new legislation on veterinary medicines.
One way or another, the new ministers face a pretty full in-tray, and have a lot to get to grips with as they settle into their posts.
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