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THERE was a time, not so very long ago, when government consultations followed a predictable if sometimes tedious pattern. First, whenever the Government wanted to change something, it would issue a consultation document setting out the background and explaining what it wanted to do and why, and asking for comments. Next, it would publish a document summarising the responses it had received and explaining the decision it had reached; this might involve some sort of compromise and, while not everyone would be happy with the outcome, it at least appeared that their views had been taken into account. Then the change was made. All this was supposed to reflect the Government's commitment to openness and transparency, although cynics might suggest it had as much to do with good PR.
The Government still holds consultation exercises, but not, perhaps, as many as it used to, and the pattern appears to be less predictable than previously, perhaps reflecting a more assertive approach to decision making. For example, at the end of last year, Defra published a summary of the responses to a consultation it had held a few months before on revising the guidance to Natural England on the licensing requirements for badger culling. While it was apparent from the summary that support for the proposed changes was far from unanimous, the Government made clear that it intended to go ahead with them, on the grounds that no new compelling evidence had emerged to change its view that changing the licensing criteria could be helpful (VR, January 2, 2016, vol 178, p 2).
In January, the Government changed legislation to allow the RCVS to require EU nationals seeking to practise veterinary surgery in the UK to provide evidence of their competency in the English language, having consulted on the matter some six months previously (VR, January 23, 2016, vol 178, p 81). A summary of the responses to the consultation was not published until February and, while this indicated that there was wide support for amending the legislation, it might have looked better if it had been published before the change was made.
To give another example, in December last year, Defra published a report summarising the outcome of a consultation held in 2013 on the principle of replacing the statutory farm animal welfare codes applied in England with non-statutory guidance drafted by industry. In this case, as in the case of the consultation on the requirements for badger-culling licences, support for the idea was not unanimous, but the Government made clear that it planned to go ahead anyway, starting with guidance for the meat chicken industry (VR, January 9, 2016, vol 178, p 29). Last week, it emerged that it is now moving forward on this by, later this month, revoking the existing code for meat and breeding chickens and replacing it with more up-to-date guidance prepared by the British Poultry Council. This has prompted concern from a number of organisations that responded to the original consultation, including the BVA, which last week sought reassurance from the Government that public confidence in animal welfare on English farms would not be adversely affected by the change (see p 355 of this issue).
In its response to the consultation in 2013, the BVA cautiously accepted the idea of an industry-led approach to reforming the welfare codes, with the important proviso that appropriate controls and arrangements would be in place to ensure quality control and an emphasis on animal welfare. In particular, it pointed out that the term ‘industry’ would have to be clearly defined, arguing that the industry group responsible should include experienced veterinarians, farmers, animal welfare scientists, industry body representatives and perhaps representatives of consumer groups, in order to ensure a balanced perspective and that standards would not be weakened.1 How this will be achieved in the case of the guidance for the chicken meat industry, and for other farming sectors that might be expected to develop guidance later, has still to be clarified, but it needs to be, because with animal welfare, as with food safety, public perception of the safeguards in place is all important. The animal welfare codes are intended to give farmers practical advice on meeting the requirements of welfare rules, and the underlying animal welfare legislation remains unchanged. However, the Government has made no bones about its enthusiasm for deregulation and cutting unnecessary red tape. As it moves towards an industry-led approach to updating the advice for farmers, it must take care to ensure that public confidence in the arrangements is not undermined.
The Government might claim it has been entirely open and transparent in the way it has conducted its consultation on reforming the welfare codes, although with Defra only releasing more details of the responses it received last week following a Freedom of Information request2, that perhaps is arguable. Either way, it doesn't look like good PR.