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Questions around tendering

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IT is more than three years now since, to the BVA's dismay, the AHVLA announced that it had decided to introduce a system of tendering to procure the services of private practitioners to carry out TB testing and other Official Veterinarian (OV) services on behalf of the state, heralding the beginning of the end of a system that had been in place for decades and which was widely considered to have served the country well (VR, May 22, 2010, vol 166, p 634). Despite numerous concerns about the impact of the proposals being raised during a consultation on the issue, the agency subsequently made clear that it intended to press ahead with its plans, while acknowledging that continuing to work with private practitioners formed an integral part of its vision for safeguarding animal health (VR, February 25, 2012, vol 170, pp 191, 192). Given the background, the AHVLA's confirmation last week that it will indeed be introducing tendering, and that it expects the new arrangements to be in place by the middle of next year, is not unexpected. The question now is whether the plans take sufficient account of concerns raised both during the consultation and subsequently and, more importantly as far as animal health and welfare is concerned, whether they will actually work.

Under the arrangements outlined by the AHVLA last week, contracts will be awarded to ‘delivery partners’, who will be expected to supply ‘a flexible package of veterinary services including TB testing, other government-funded services, such as brucellosis testing, and potentially other new areas of work’. Tenders will be invited for delivery partners to provide services to a clearly defined specification on the basis of regional or national ‘lots’. The AHVLA envisages that about 10 delivery partners will be required to deliver services in England and Wales; these, in turn, will be expected to subcontract a high proportion of the work to small- and medium-sized businesses, which will be required to provide veterinary services to livestock businesses within the lot region (VR, August 3, 2013, vol 173, p 102).

The AHVLA also plans to introduce a new system of OV authorisation and training, based on a modular ‘certificate of competence’. This will be available to any vet and be portable between employers. Training will be available through a single AHVLA-authorised provider, which will also be appointed by tender.

The requirement for delivery partners to subcontract a high proportion of the work to other businesses is significant and will be important in helping to safeguard and improve animal health in the future. The Government is preoccupied with reducing the incidence and costs of bovine TB at the moment but, as the BVA and the British Cattle Veterinary Association have argued, a much more holistic approach is needed, making best use of the relationship between local practitioners and their farming clients. Strategies for disease surveillance and the prevention of TB and other diseases crucially depend on this relationship and it remains important that the infrastructure needed to support this is maintained. A statement from the AHVLA that ‘Whilst cost and the ability to deliver a consistent quality-assured service will be important in identifying successful bidders, other factors, including the provision of a responsive service and the use of small- and medium-sized businesses which otherwise support a sustainable livestock industry and a wider rural economy will also be important’ seems to go some way towards recognising this, as does its comment that ‘the procurement model recognises the importance of an effective partnership between livestock keepers and their vets in preventing and controlling disease and for ensuring the health and welfare of animals’. However, it would be helpful if, before the formal tendering process begins, the agency could specify what will be considered to be ‘a high proportion’ of the work. It would also be helpful if it could make a commitment to ensuring multiple delivery partners not just during transition to the new arrangements but well into the future. This may well be the intention at this stage but circumstances change and businesses evolve and experience of tendering in other areas of government suggests that what was originally intended doesn't always happen.

As in previous announcements on this subject, the AHVLA made much last week of the importance of assuring the quality  of the services provided, and ensuring value for money for taxpayers. In a question and answer document on its website,1 it notes that ‘Of the £100 million spent annually  by Defra on bovine TB eradication in England alone, the greatest proportion (£38 million) is allocated to tuberculin testing and related activities with some £18 million forecast be paid to OVs in 2013/14’. On that basis, the amount paid to OVs represents less than 20 per cent of the overall costs. Posing and answering another question in the document – ‘Is this [the new OV arrangements] a prelude to farmers paying more?’ – it notes that ‘the overwhelming majority of TB testing is currently undertaken at the taxpayer's expense’ and that ‘irrespective of whether future government policy requires the primary beneficiaries of that testing, the livestock farming industry, to bear a greater share of the direct cost of disease surveillance and control, it is important that AHVLA identifies and introduces the most effective and efficient delivery model possible’.

That may be true but, ultimately, the way services develop will depend on how (and whether) they are paid for. In its recent draft policy on eradicating bovine TB in England, Defra made clear that, from the Government's perspective, the current situation was financially unsustainable and that it would be developing proposals for a new funding model, but stopped short of saying what that funding model would be (VR, July 13, 2013, vol 173, p 30). It would seem important that it comes out with the funding model sometime soon, or at least gives a clear indication of the lines along which it is thinking.

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