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What now for animal health?

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WITH most of the speculation about the likely outcome of the General Election having turned out to be wrong, it is probably foolhardy to attempt to predict what the election of a Conservative majority Government will mean for veterinary activity and animal health and welfare, although given that animal health and welfare are not supposed to be party political issues, and with the direction of policy in this area having already been set under the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition, it seems reasonable to anticipate more of the same. The Conservatives made some pretty firm commitments in their manifesto on much bigger issues such as the economy, membership of the EU and the future of the Union in the UK, and it seems unlikely that animal health and welfare will be top of their immediate priority list. Nevertheless, animal health and welfare will undoubtedly be affected by the Government's wider approach, and some animal health and welfare issues are pressing in themselves.

Not least among these is bovine TB. On this, the Conservatives made the firmest commitment among the main parties standing in the election, promising to ‘implement our 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB’. In the short term, political and media attention will again almost inevitably focus on the pilot badger culls, which Labour and some of the other parties said they would stop, but this must not be allowed to detract from all of the other measures being applied to control bovine TB, and the need for these efforts to be properly supported. With the APHA, under the Coalition Government, having recently offloaded responsibility for the provision of TB testing and other veterinary services to private delivery partners, which has implications for veterinary practices helping to undertake such work, there must be concern to ensure that the relationship between local vets and farmers, which is so important in controlling bovine TB and other diseases, survives.

The Conservatives stated in their manifesto that, ‘while we will always make sure that the Food Standards Agency properly regulates the slaughter of livestock and poultry, we will protect methods of religious slaughter, such as shechita and halal.’ There is no reason to believe it will go back on that promise. For the BVA, which believes, on animal welfare grounds, that all animals should be stunned before slaughter, and which has campaigned vigorously on this issue over the past year or so, the emphasis now may have to be on trying to ensure that all meat from animals that have been slaughtered without stunning is clearly labelled, so that consumers can make an informed choice when buying such products, and that the number of animals slaughtered by these means does not exceed religious requirements.

As in 2010, the 2015 Conservative manifesto promised to give Parliament an opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote. A vote wasn't held in the last Parliament, but one does seem likely in the next.

Of the wider issues affecting animal welfare, with the Government having promised an in or out referendum by the end of 2017, debate about Britain's EU membership seems likely to take the lead over the next year or so, along with its plans for reducing the deficit. Setting aside the complexities of the Common Agricultural Policy and the workings of the single market, much of the UK's legislation relating to animal health and welfare is based on European legislation, so the effects of a British exit could be profound. From what has been said so far, the wider debate looks likely to be dominated by discussion of issues such as immigration and ‘loss of sovereignty’. However, over the next couple of years, important new laws relating to animal health and veterinary medicines are being developed in Brussels and it will be important to ensure that the UK's contribution to the development of this legislation is not compromised by the thought that, by the time it is finalised, Britain could be ‘out’ rather than ‘in’.

With regard to deficit reduction, Defra and its agencies bore more than their fair share of cuts under the last Government, resulting in changes to the arrangements for animal disease surveillance and the provision of official veterinary services, some of the consequences of which have still to be felt. Defra is not a department for which funding has been ring-fenced and, with further cuts likely across government, there must clearly be concern about what might lie ahead. With the prospect of reduced funding, too, for local authorities, there must also be concern about what this will mean for effective enforcement of legislation relating to animal welfare, animal disease and food safety.

Regarding higher education, the Conservative manifesto promised to ensure ‘the continuing success and stability’ of reforms to university funding introduced by the Coalition Government. This may be a source of some relief to universities, which might otherwise have been unsure about where their funding might come from. However, it will be of little comfort to students who will continue to have to pay tuition fees of £9000 a year (or possibly more) – particularly veterinary students, whose courses are longer and more intensive than most.

Animal health and welfare has been a devolved issue within the UK for some time, but, even so, it would be wrong to think that veterinary activity – like much else – will not be affected by the outcome of the renewed debate following the election on devolution and ‘the future of the Union’. Disease tends not to respect geographical or political boundaries, whether in the UK, in Europe or further afield, and policies need to be developed and implemented accordingly. Ultimately, the wider economic and political consequences of the outcome of the election are likely to have a bigger impact on animal health and welfare than the animal-specific pledges in any of the parties' pre-election manifestos.

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