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THE House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has again been casting a critical eye over some of Defra's activities and, after a report last year on Defra's management of expenditure (VR, September 6, 2008, vol 163, p 285), has this year focused its attentions more narrowly. Its latest report, which was published this week, is specifically concerned with the health of livestock (mainly in relation to bovine TB) and honeybees.* This is not the first report to have lumped honeybees together with livestock in recent months, with the National Audit Office having produced a similarly eclectic report in March (VR, March 14, 2009, vol 164, p 317).
The link between bees and bovine TB may not be immediately obvious, but both fall under Defra's remit and the Public Accounts Committee clearly thinks there are comparisons to be made. It remarks, 'The incidence of bovine TB and of honeybee losses continues to increase and the actions by Defra to tackle these issues cost £80 million and £1·5 million respectively in 2007/08. Whilst cattle and honeybees are plainly very different, the challenges facing the department are similar.'
Whether all of the comparisons drawn by the committee are valid is debatable, but its report makes some useful observations in relation to animal health, while rightly arguing that honeybees deserve more attention. Among them is that success in tackling disease will require Defra to work more collaboratively with farmers/beekeepers and researchers. Regarding livestock, it suggests that Defra 'should pilot local consultative arrangements in livestock disease hotspots, involving farmers, vets and local authorities to adopt a collaborative approach to risk assessment, preventative actions and enforcement'. For bees, it suggests that a similar approach involving beekeepers and Defra's inspectors 'would help to involve the key stakeholders actively in minimising risks and enforcing good bee husbandry in local areas'.
On biosecurity, the committee suggests that adopting rigorous biosecurity might limit disease impact and incidence, but says that Defra has made little progress in establishing minimum standards of biosecurity with the farming industry to allow for effective farm risk assessment. It suggests that, in consultation with the farming industry and vets, Defra and Animal Health should develop biosecurity guidelines and standards appropriate to different livestock sectors sufficient to enable Animal Health officers to assess the risk of exposure on each farm. It also suggests that, when visiting a farm to carry out TB tests, Animal Health inspectors could make better use of the opportunity to discuss biosecurity measures appropriate to local circumstances with the farmer. Meanwhile, the report criticises Defra for not enforcing the TB testing regime more rigorously.
Like the BVA, the Public Accounts Committee believes that, as Defra moves towards introducing new arrangements for cost and responsibility sharing on animal health, it should include incentives to encourage farmers to implement good standards of biosecurity and husbandry. However, it is notable that, in Defra's recent consultation document on responsibility and cost sharing (VR, April 4, 2009, vol 164, pp 410-411), no specific financial incentives are included. There is, of course, a problem here, in that, in the absence of specific guidance on what constitutes good biosecurity, it will be difficult to reward good practice or penalise practice that is poor. Also, as the National Audit Office pointed out in its report in March, at present, Defra's financial information 'is focused upon reporting within internal management structures and cannot readily be used to calculate accurate figures for the full cost of managing specific farm animal diseases', with the result that it 'does not have sufficiently robust financial or performance information on controlling diseases to assess routinely the costs and benefits of interventions, and to underpin a transparent and equitable cost-sharing scheme'. This raises the more fundamental question that, if Defra is unable to calculate the costs of managing specific diseases, how can it determine how those costs should be shared?
Quite what all this has to do with honeybees is not always clear from the Public Accounts Committee's report, although, having said that, biosecurity is as important for bees as for other species, and other points in the report, concerning devolution and the allocation of limited research funds, are well made. Devolution is an important issue in animal health and policies in the UK continue to diverge. This was demonstrated again this week, with further announcements concerning the control of bovine TB in England and Wales (see pp 64-65 and p 91 of this issue).
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