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Changing nature of the AHVLA

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AN interim, one-year business plan published by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency last summer emphasised that the organisation was in a state of flux and that significant challenges lay ahead (VR, August 27, 2011, vol 169, p 216). The AHVLA has just produced a more detailed corporate plan for the years 2012 to 2015.* If anything, it serves to emphasise that this Defra agency continues to change rapidly and that there will be little respite in the immediate future.

The extent of the challenges is reflected in a foreword to the plan by Catherine Brown, the agency's chief executive, who comments, ‘We are working in a complicated and changing environment, against a background of a very tough economic climate, and to deliver our shared objectives for animal health and welfare we will have to work in real partnership with all our stakeholders.’

Just how complex that environment is described in more depth in the plan itself, which discusses, among other things, the formation of the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England to take forward plans for responsibility and cost sharing, as well as the devolution of budgets to Scotland and Wales. These and other developments, it points out, form part of an ‘overarching policy shift’ which is ‘changing the way the AHVLA's customers behave and the services they want to pay for’. It also draws attention to the effect on the agency's enforcement activities of the recent report from the Farming Regulation Task Force and of the Government's plans to create opportunities for economic growth in the food and farming sector by reducing red tape. On this it remarks, ‘The role of enforcement still exists, but is tempered by the need to develop the industry as a whole.’

The impact of spending cuts looms large throughout the plan and is reflected in an annex on staff levels, which indicates that the number of FTEs employed by the agency will be reduced by more than 20 per cent by 2015, from about 2500 in 2011/12 to about 2100 in 2014/15. Elsewhere, the plan makes clear that the AHVLA intends to be ‘a lean, flexible organisation operating from a rationalised estate with a greater proportion of our costs recovered from end-user customers’.

Partnership working represents a crucial element of the agency's plans and ‘will be extended to ensure that [its] internal focus and resources are limited to core activities’. Among other things, the AHVLA intends to be ‘a key influencer’ to ‘help shape the direction in the animal and public health sector’. However, it points out, ‘We cannot do this single handed and so will work with intermediaries, such as industry bodies and private veterinary surgeons, who have a more direct relationship with many of the end users’.

Another element of the plan is that the AHVLA should continue to provide relevant, quality-assured evidence and expertise to support decision-making. It sees itself developing as ‘an intelligence hub’, collating and assessing information from various sources and synthesising these data into ‘meaningful holistic information’. It may well be, as the plan suggests, that the AHVLA will need to be more innovative in the way it commissions and delivers evidence and will have to ‘pull data together from a multitude of sources (internal and external), working with partners to create a richer picture’. However, in this, as in other areas, it remains important that it does not divest too much of its in-house expertise if capability is to be maintained, as it must be.

The plan includes some worrying statements about research, noting, for example, that animal health research is ‘on average in the middle priority category for Defra's Evidence Investment Strategy’ and that its financial plan is based on the assumption that research spending ‘only falls’ by 20 per cent between 2010/11 and 2014/15. Any significant reduction over and above this would, it says, ‘require strategic review of the agency's delivery capability to deliver a research base and therefore its reference laboratory functions’.

The plan also notes that the agency will be developing a detailed research strategy that identifies areas to be maintained and those that will not but will instead ‘rely on partner organisations to lead, either from industry, academia or the international community’. The problem with all this is that it is not just the AHVLA that is in a state of flux at the moment, and that plans for responsibility and cost sharing are still in development. In research, as in other vital areas such as surveillance and responding to disease emergencies, the AHVLA plays a crucial role and existing structures must not be done away with until robust alternatives are firmly in place.

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