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Shaking up animal health

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IT would be wrong to suggest that the draft Animal Health Bill, which was published by Defra this week for prelegislative scrutiny, has been eagerly awaited - but it was certainly not unexpected. In fact, it has appeared almost bang on schedule, again demonstrating the apparent determination of the Government to reform the arrangements for safeguarding animal health in England, and to transfer more of the responsibility and associated costs to a seemingly reluctant industry.

If enacted, the Bill will lead to the biggest shake up in the arrangements for safeguarding animal health in decades. Some of the measures, such as those that would implement proposals to set up a new non-departmental public body to take over Defra's current responsibilities for animal health, have been well aired in advance and can hardly come as a surprise, not least because the Government has already set up a committee to advise on what form the new body should take. However, the idea of creating a new post of Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) for England, and a separate statutory role for a CVO for the UK, has not featured in previous consultations and can therefore be regarded as new. Given that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own CVO, the idea of a CVO with specific responsibility for England seems sensible, and can be seen as a natural consequence of devolution. Similarly, the idea of a CVO for the UK makes sense as efforts to safeguard animal health need to be coordinated, particularly in the event of a serious disease outbreak. As the devolved administrations continue to pursue different policies on animal health, this seems set to become an increasingly difficult task. For this and other reasons it will be essential that the respective roles and responsibilities of the CVOs are clearly defined, and that clear protocols are put in place which set out how activities will be coordinated.

The proposed new body for animal health forms an integral part of Defra's plans for responsibility and cost sharing. Many of the measures proposed in the Bill relate to the 'responsibility' side of the equation and to establishing 'partnership working' of the kind long advocated by the UK's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. Details of the necessary cost sharing measures and how the new arrangements will be paid for will be set out separately in a future Finance Bill, so discussion of this more obviously contentious side of the equation may conceivably be deferred for the time being. In the meantime, the draft Animal Health Bill aims to simplify existing provisions on payments for animals slaughtered for disease control purposes in England and Wales; it also includes express provisions to allow reduced payments in cases where someone has contributed to the spread of disease or breached relevant regulations.

Much will depend on the details of the Bill and how the provisions are ultimately implemented, but questions also remain about some of the underlying principles. For example, in previous consultations, the BVA has expressed concern about the idea that responsibility for animal health should be moved to a new 'arm's length' body while responsibility for welfare remains within Defra. Animal health and welfare are inextricably linked and separating them in this way is illogical, whatever merits ministers might see in keeping a close grip on animal welfare policy while to an extent distancing themselves from animal health.

Provisions in the Bill that would extend the circumstances allowing compulsory vaccination of animals could potentially prove contentious, as could those giving inspectors increased powers to collect samples from animals and test them for disease surveillance purposes, no matter how well intended in terms of disease control. Also likely to provoke discussion is a measure relating to powers of entry, which would allow for any suitably qualified inspector, not just qualified veterinary inspectors, to undertake these inspections. In a question and answer document accompanying its consultation document, Defra says that this will reduce the costs of the inspection regime, provide greater flexibility and allow quicker turnaround. Elsewhere in the document it notes that all of Defra's current animal health policy responsibilities will be transferred to the new body, including responsibility for bovine TB.

Defra has asked for comments by April 19, which makes it unlikely that the Bill can progress until after a General Election. The outcome of the election, and what the priorities of a new Government will be, are clearly uncertain, but that does not mean the proposals can be taken any less seriously. Cost and responsibility sharing in some shape or form is likely to come in whichever party is elected, and it is important that views on the current proposals are made known.

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