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Partnership needed

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THE Animal Health and Welfare Board for England was established in November last year to take forward plans for responsibility and cost sharing and change the way animal health and welfare in England is managed. Announcing plans to set up the new board in April 2011, the agriculture minister, Jim Paice, said it represented ‘a completely new way of working’, in which the people affected by government decisions would be involved in the decision-making process, effectively bringing ‘the Big Society’ into the heart of government (VR, May 7, 2011, vol 168, p 468). Given that background, and the breadth of the board's responsibilities, an article on pp 115-116 of this issue of Veterinary Record by Mark Tufnell, an AHWBE board member whose responsibilities include liaising with the veterinary profession, is helpful in explaining the board's approach and outlining progress to date.

The AHWBE is the principal source of advice to ministers on all strategic matters relating to the health of kept animals in England. It meets on a monthly basis and a glance at the brief reports of its meetings available on Defra's website (at www.defra.gov.uk/ahwbe/) gives an indication of the breadth of its activities and the significance of the issues it is dealing with. Topics considered during its first nine months have included: a new animal health and welfare strategy for England; plans for delivering veterinary surveillance; the report of the Farming Regulation Task Force aimed at reducing red tape for farmers; veterinary checks on imported animals; and the strategy for controlling bovine TB and options for delivering that strategy in the future. In addition, it has held meetings with stakeholders to discuss issues such as roles and responsibilities in animal health, prioritisation of budgets, and earned recognition for producers who demonstrate good practice.

Although it is still relatively early days, the board has already made a number of recommendations to ministers – on, for example, a new animal health and welfare strategy, a new TB Eradication Advisory Group (since implemented), updating animal welfare codes and a new model for delivering veterinary surveillance as recommended in the recent report from the independent Surveillance Advisory Group (VR, April 21, 2012, vol 170, p 400). On surveillance, the board agreed with the advisory group's proposals while also noting that it was vital for the AHVLA to have a project plan and a business case before progressing the proposals. Meanwhile, the extent of its powers to influence developments in the field of animal health is perhaps further indicated by the fact that the AHVLA's plans to introduce tendering for the provision of TB testing services appear to have been put on hold for the time being while alternative options are considered.

As Mr Tufnell comments, the board faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is operating within an animal health and welfare budget that is set to fall by 18 per cent over the next three years, from £244 million in 2011/12 to £199 million in 2014/15. In the longer term, it also faces the challenge of eradicating bovine TB, on which Defra is currently spending more than £100 million a year.

These bald financial figures underlie much of the current preoccupation with finding new ways of working and ensuring that all available resources are used to best effect. Along with a need to ensure that arrangements for safeguarding animal health are sustainable, they also underlie the emphasis on partnership working which predates the formation of the AHWBE and has, in fact, been a feature of Great Britain's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy for the past eight years. Despite some notable exceptions, progress in this area has, for various reasons, been slow, which is one of the reasons the board was established in the first place. Part of the problem was a breakdown of trust between the industry and government, and one of the aims in establishing the board was to help rebuild trust, and to clarify responsibilities for animal health and welfare before deciding on how costs might be shared. It must be hoped that the board, working with the industry, is successful in this, because animal health and welfare depends on it and, with the impending fall in funding, time and money are running out.

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