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All change (again)

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WITH Mr Gordon Brown's appointment as Prime Minister, the ministerial team at DEFRA has undergone its second major upheaval in 14 months. As a result of the latest Cabinet reshuffle, Lord Rooker is the only minister left with any experience in the department, having been appointed as minister of state in May last year and having also served in the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the late 1990s.

Mr David Miliband, who until two weeks ago was Secretary of State at DEFRA, has now moved on to the Foreign Office. Mr Miliband was attached to the department for just 14 months, but it is fair to say that, during this period, he had a significant impact on its policies. His advocacy of the environment and ‘one planet living’ has certainly taken root in the department and his influence on this issue seems likely to outlive his tenure. His successor as Secretary of State, Mr Hilary Benn, has barely had time to get his feet under his desk, but has already launched an advertising campaign relating to climate change. With the appointment of a climate change expert, Professor Robert Watson, as defra's new chief scientific adviser, the emphasis on the environment seems likely to continue, although Professor Watson's comments regarding the importance of zoonoses on a recent Farming Today programme give some grounds for optimism (see p 41 of this issue).

Quite what all this will mean for animal health and welfare remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that defra's priorities have changed over the past year and that the department itself is changing rapidly. As reported on p 42 of this issue, the Chief Veterinary Officer (cvo), Dr Debby Reynolds, updated bva Council last week on the outcome of a ‘strategy refresh’ in the department, as well as organisational changes that have occurred under its ‘Renew defra’ programme.

As a result of the strategy review, the department's activities were now being focused on the mission of ‘living within environmental means’, with ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’ and ‘maintaining and enhancing the natural asset base’ being high-level goals. Food and farming were one of seven essentials that defra considered it needed to get right before it could achieve these goals, the others being energy, international climate change, products and waste, marine, water and land use.

The organisational changes aimed partly to reflect the new priorities and increase flexibility in the department. One of the results of these changes was that the former animal health and welfare and sustainable farming and food directorates general had been merged into a single food and farming group, embracing the responsibilities of the cvo (VR, April 28, 2007, vol 160, p 561). As a department, defra had suffered cuts of £200 million in 2006/07, and 2007/08 was likely to be another tough year financially.

Regarding the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, the cvo noted that this contributed to defra's sustainable farming and food agenda as well as its goals for sustainable development. Changing patterns of agriculture presented challenges for the veterinary profession which, she suggested, were as significant as those affecting the farming industry, and she urged the profession to engage with the strategy and the various initiatives in place.

If defra is changing, then so too is Animal Health (formerly the State Veterinary Service), the agency responsible for delivering its policies. bva Council also received an update from Mrs Glenys Stacey, Animal Health's chief executive, on recent developments there.

Since the svs had been developed as an executive agency of defra in 2005, effort had been devoted to ‘putting some management’ into the organisation and updating ‘antiquated’ information systems. However, it was now ready to move forward in a number of areas, including the Official Veterinarian Reform Programme. This programme, which is currently being piloted in the West Midlands, aims to redefine the working relationship between Animal Health and private practitioners (VR, May 5, 2007, vol 160, p 601). She asked members of the profession to suspend any prejudices they might have about the programme, which, she said, was looking to bring benefits all round.

Just two weeks after the Cabinet reshuffle, it is, perhaps, a little early to say what influence the new ministerial team will have on defra's policies. However, the emphasis on the environment seems likely to continue and the direction for animal health and welfare already seems set. Recent developments are not encouraging, but the hope must remain that it won’t be too long before animal health and welfare again gets the profile in government that it actually deserves.

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