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Devolution and animal health

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DEVOLUTION is all very well, but it does make it harder to keep track of everything that is happening. This is certainly true in the animal health field, where, in administrative terms, activities have been devolved for some time. Things seemed so much easier back in 2004 when Defra, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government agreed on a single Animal Health and Welfare Strategy for Great Britain. However, time moves on and things change. In 2014, the Welsh Government launched the Wales Animal Health and Welfare Framework, setting out a specific strategy for Wales (VR, March 8, 2014, vol 174, p 235; August 2, 2014, vol 175, p 107). Now it is the turn of the Scottish Government, which last month published its strategy for Animal Health and Welfare in the Livestock Industry in Scotland.1

The Scottish strategy document recognises that disease does not respect borders and that, as a result, Great Britain is considered to be a single epidemiological unit in terms of disease control. Nevertheless, it also makes clear that, following the devolution of animal health budgets in 2011, Scottish ministers wanted an animal health and welfare strategy that is ‘tailored to Scotland's needs’ (see p 327 of this issue).

The document sets out the background to the strategy and identifies five themes that need to be addressed to deliver improvements in animal health and welfare. These are: skills and knowledge, disease risk, welfare, regulatory impact and societal impact. Based on these themes, it sets out 12 actions which together will form the basis for the Scottish Government's commitments to the health and welfare of livestock over the next five years.

Scotland has a long history of close links and good partnership working between government and industry on animal health. This might explain why there appears to be less emphasis on partnership working in the Scottish document than in the Welsh strategy published in 2014 or, indeed, in the GB strategy document published in 2004, when the idea of working in partnership and sharing responsibilities and costs was still in its infancy. Nevertheless, the Scottish document does make clear that delivering improvements in animal health and welfare is not a job for just one agency or group, and that government, industry, enforcement agencies and, through their purchasing decisions, retailers and consumers all have a role to play. It also makes the point that the government's ability to achieve its strategic goals has to take financial constraints into account, as well as EU legislation and animal health law.

The importance of disease surveillance is mentioned in the document, although, given that Scotland's arrangements for scanning surveillance are currently under review, one might have hoped for more discussion on this. Similarly, although support for the Highlands and Islands Veterinary Services Scheme gets a mention, it would have been good to see more recognition of the role of the veterinary profession in underpinning animal health and welfare activity, particularly of the role of private practitioners in supporting farmers through veterinary health and welfare planning.

In Scotland, as in Wales, delivery of many elements of animal health and welfare policy is through Defra's Animal and Plant Health Agency. This is particularly the case with respect to responding to exotic disease outbreaks. One of the actions set out in the strategy is to review the governance of the APHA's activities in Scotland ‘so as to ensure that the Scottish Government delivers an effective service to the people of Scotland’, and it will be interesting to see the outcome.

The document also includes actions relating to climate change and antimicrobial resistance, as well as outlining plans for a review aimed at enhancing animal traceability. A section on endemic diseases draws attention to the efforts being made to eradicate bovine viral diarrhoea and reduce the spread of sheep scab. Having achieved the status of being officially free of bovine tuberculosis, the Scottish Government is not distracted by this disease to anything like the extent of its counterparts in England and Wales, and the strategy makes a commitment to using the best available evidence to ‘initiate a discussion with stakeholders on the next stage of tackling disease in Scotland’.

For those of a practical bent, strategies can seem somewhat nebulous and little more than a bureaucratic exercise. However, in administrative terms, they do seem to focus minds and, even if the ambitions they set out are not always realised, they can determine the direction of travel. With Wales and Scotland having produced tailored strategies, maybe it is time to clarify the position in England. Also, bearing in mind that Great Britain is still a single epidemiological unit, perhaps it would be worth revisiting the 2004 GB strategy, which is now more than 10 years old, and seeing if it might be possible to produce a short, simple document that everyone can refer to and that will remain relevant across England, Scotland and Wales. With the EU having recently agreed a new animal health law (VR, March 12, 2016, vol 178, p 251), this would be timely. It would also produce a useful point of reference and cohesion if, as seems likely, the process of devolution continues and the different parts of the UK continue to develop strategies appropriate to their particular needs.

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