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Matters for the minister

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THE new Secretary of State at Defra, Andrea Leadsom, will have a lot on her plate following her appointment to the Cabinet and, having campaigned vigorously for a British exit from the EU in the run up to the referendum, will doubtless have her own ideas about what she hopes to achieve. However, even setting aside the complexities of Brexit, there is much to contend with in the field of animal health and welfare. Whatever the eventual outcome of negotiations in Europe, things will have to be kept running in the meantime and beyond, and it must be hoped that progress can be made in a number of areas. If the Secretary of State feels in need of a crash course on what is currently important in this field, she could do worse than look at a manifesto for animal health and welfare that was produced by the BVA before the General Election in 2015. Issued as ‘a call to action for politicians and policymakers’, the manifesto1 set out a number of recommendations with a view to providing a clear pathway to improving animal health and welfare (VR, February 14, 2015, vol 176, p 158).Given the pace of political developments over the past few weeks it seems like an age since that election but in fact it was only just over a year ago and the issues highlighted in the document remain valid.

One of the BVA's recommendations that seems particularly relevant at this stage was that the Government should maintain and promote veterinary expertise in government departments and agencies, and recognise the value of veterinary input into the development and implementation of policies. Defra, like many government departments, has been subject to significant cuts over the past five years, with the result that the amount of veterinary and other expertise available internally has been reduced. It remains important that ministers are well advised on policies. With a whole raft of UK legislation relating to animal health, food safety and public health currently being based on EU legislation, and likely to have to be amended, specific veterinary expertise will be required in many areas, and it will be important to make sure that this is available.

Key areas highlighted in the BVA's manifesto were safeguarding animal health, promoting animal welfare and recognising the vital role of vets in society. With regard to animal health, it recommended that the Government should ‘protect the UK from exotic disease through better enforcement of pet travel rules and maintaining a robust and coordinated [disease] surveillance network’. It further recommended that it should ‘support vets and farmers to combat endemic livestock diseases and maintain a comprehensive approach to tackling bovine TB’. It should also champion the concept of One Health – recognising that the health of people is inextricably linked to the health of animals – and ‘continue to support the responsible use of antimicrobials to safeguard their future use in animals and humans’.

On animal welfare, the BVA recommended that the Government should ‘improve the welfare of millions of animals by requiring all animals to be stunned before slaughter to ensure that they are insensible to pain’ and that, in the short term, it should ‘reduce the welfare harm of non-stun slaughter by introducing immediate post-cut stunning and clearer labelling of meat as stunned or non-stunned to allow consumers to make an informed choice’ when buying food. Regarding companion animals, it called, among other things, for an overhaul of dog breeding and licensing laws to ensure best practice in the production and sale of companion animals. It also called on the Government to ‘recognise the societal benefits of companion animals to the health and wellbeing of their owners and others by committing more resources to companion animal health issues and research within Defra’. If the Secretary of State would like to know more about the veterinary profession's approach to improving animal welfare, she might also wish to read the BVA's animal welfare strategy, which was published in January this year and sets out a framework for progress (VR, February 6, 2016, vol 178, p 128).

Devolution is already a feature of life in the UK, and may become more so in the times ahead. Without wishing to overburden the Secretary of State, it might also be worth her reading the separate manifestos for animal health and welfare in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which were published by the BVA in April this year, before the regional elections in May (VR, April 16, 2016, vol 178, p 382). Taken together, these illustrate some of the differences in the animal health and welfare challenges and concerns in each of the devolved administrations of the UK; they also highlight some common themes, on which it is important that activities are coordinated and on which everyone with an interest in animal health remains united.

All of this adds up to quite a lot of reading for the new Secretary of State, but in some ways this cannot be avoided. Defra has a broad remit, but animal health and welfare is a very important part of it. Vets are on the front line of caring for animals and are engaged in a wide range of relevant activities, whether detecting and treating disease, carrying out research, protecting public health or providing the certification necessary for trade. As such, they are uniquely well placed to offer the Government informed advice.

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