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Challenges of cost cutting

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Given all the upheaval in Whitehall following the change of Government in May, this year's BVA Congress could hardly have been more relevant. With its theme of ‘Vets and the public good’, the meeting highlighted the vital contribution that vets in both the private and public sectors make to society. At the same time, it raised important questions about how well they might be able to fulfil that role in the future.

The congress took place at a time of much uncertainty about how state veterinary activity in the UK will be organised and paid for in the future, although, with the Government firmly committed to reducing public spending, it was clear from comments made by the Chief Veterinary Officer and others that everyone will be expected to achieve more with less. It is usually argued that much can be achieved by reordering priorities and more careful allocation of funds but, in the field of animal health, the cuts could affect activities such as disease surveillance and the UK's ability to respond to emergencies, which must be cause for concern.

The pressure to make savings in Defra will inevitably affect its agencies and practices carrying out work on behalf of the Government. This is already being demonstrated by Animal Health's plans to change the basis on which Official Veterinarians are appointed, and to bring some TB testing back ‘in house’.

The general sense of foreboding about the impact of the cuts was reinforced during the congress by the publication in The Daily Telegraph of a list of organisations being considered for the chop in the Government's review of non-departmental bodies (its ‘bonfire of the quangos’). The organisations listed for abolition included the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), the Health Protection Agency and the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, among many others. This dismantling of existing structures might conceivably make some sense if the Government had given any indication of what is to take their place, but such clarification is lacking. None of these organisations are past their sell-by date but, if confirmed, news that the FAWC is to be abolished seems particularly worrying, given that a review last year concluded that its work was still needed and that it provided exceptional value for money, and because ministers had previously indicated that it would survive (VR, August 7, 2010, vol 167, p 186).

If the congress highlighted the uncertainties prevalent in some areas, it also shed light on what might happen in others. A presentation by Rosemary Radcliffe, the independent chair of the advisory committee that is looking into how responsibility and cost and sharing on animal health should be introduced in England, proved particularly valuable. Among other things, it made clear that the idea of a non-departmental public body with responsibility for animal health (but not animal welfare), as proposed in a draft Bill drawn up by the previous Government (VR, January 30, 2010, vol 166, pp 124, 125), is now dead and buried. Instead, the advisory committee is looking at the idea of a partnership board made up of external members and key Defra officials, with about 12 members in total. Rather than having a routine business or crisis management focus, the board would have responsibility for policy development and strategic oversight of animal heath and welfare matters, and would provide a single source of departmental advice to ministers.

Ms Radcliffe's presentation was received enthusiastically by those attending the session, who saw opportunities for tackling endemic diseases of livestock and for developing a long-term vision for animal health without interference from government. However, much will depend on the details of the arrangements that are being developed for sharing costs with farmers. Crucially, success will also depend on re-establishing trust between Defra and the various stakeholders, and improved cooperation across the industry.

The political focus was by no means only on farm animals, and the congress also included stimulating debates on issues such as dangerous dogs and how far vets should go in applying expensive or innovative treatments to pets. A report of the debate on dangerous dogs appears in this issue of Veterinary Record; other debates will be reported over the next few weeks. It would be wrong to suggest it was all doom and gloom, but one was left with the impression that there are some significant challenges ahead.

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