Animal health bill a licence for state incompetence
Scotland on Sunday

ROSS Finnie, the Minister for rural affairs, is generally considered to have come well out of the foot and mouth disaster. He is commended for moving more rapidly to combat the disease, for bringing in the army early enough to stop its spread, and of course for having, thus far, stamped it out in Scotland. I am not myself an enthusiastic Finnie supporter, because I regarded the policy of slaughtering healthy animals as brutal and unnecessary. But I am prepared to give him the benefit of doubt on two conditions: that he resists the appalling bill currently proposed at Westminster which is being introduced under the Orwellian title, the Animal Health (Amendment) Bill. And that he takes action to reverse the scandalous decline of Scottish veterinary science in Scotland.

First things first: the Animal Health Bill is an outrage. It gives the government the right to slaughter any animal, including not only cows and sheep, but family pets, horses, ponies, and even creatures housed in zoos, if, in its view, they "pose a risk of spreading disease". This means that if there is another foot and mouth scare, farmers or householders will be deprived of the legal right to challenge the killing of their animals. It is a savage and draconian piece of legislation, far worse in its implications than the absurd Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, which was rushed through after the scare over pit-bull terriers, and was found to be unworkable.

This new bill goes far further, in that government agents will have the right to seize any animal deemed to pose a threat of contracting or spreading disease, without having to offer the kind of proof that would stand up in court. I gather the reason behind the bill is that those who participated in the wholly inept handling of the foot and mouth policy were held up in their drive to cull farms in "contiguous areas" - next door to an outbreak - because some farmers protested that their animals were healthy and went to court to prove it. As a result some valuable herds were saved, and subsequently found to pose no risk whatsoever. That course of action will be disallowed if the bill becomes law.

The reason it is outrageous is not just because of its manifest inhumanity and its abuse of executive power, but because DEFRA, the government department in London responsible for veterinary welfare, has failed thus far to demonstrate that it has a scientific basis for extending the slaughter policy. The various inquiries which are examining FMD may well conclude that the contiguous culls were invalid - that they failed to stop the spread of the disease, and that they simply led to the slaughter of millions of healthy animals. So far, Scottish ministers have not decided whether they need more powers, and are holding off. I urge them to stay as far away from this bill as they can get.

And this leads me to my second point: Scotland is in no position to test the bill scientifically because it has run down its veterinary science research to such an extent that it may no longer have the expertise to expose its fallacies. This is a scandal of national proportions. There was a time when Scotland's two leading institutes - the Royal (Dick) School in Edinburgh, and the Glasgow University Veterinary School led the world in veterinary science. Not only did we have the best-trained vets, who exported their talents all over the world, there was a close working relationship between the researchers - the men behind the microscopes - and the vets, who worked, literally, in the field. But behind the scenes there has been a catastrophic decline in expertise where it matters. Of more than 40 employees in the department of veterinary pathology at the Dick Vet, only three are actually vets. The remainder are molecular biologists working on human diseases - herpes, Parkinson's Disease, and, of course E-coli 0157, which can be said to straddle both areas. The reason is that these score higher in the Government's Research Assessment Exercise, which determines which projects receive funds, because they generate more articles in magazines like Nature. Veterinary subjects have slid down the scale, and therefore do not attract the same support.

Amazingly, neither the professors of veterinary pathology, tropical veterinary medicine, or veterinary public health at the Royal Dick are actually veterinary surgeons. The effect of this is a fatal gap between pure research and actual experience. It means that animals are dealt with as statistics - as cells on a slide, or samples in a test tube rather than living creatures, nurtured by human beings. It was this basic ignorance - the failure of the scientists to understand the reality of farm husbandry that led to the embarrassing failure to control the spread of FMD.

Now something even worse is happening - the Royal Dick is quietly closing down its teaching facilities, and intends to substitute long distance learning instead. An institution that once handed on its expertise to vets throughout the world is to rely on computers and videos and disembodied screens, provided by outside consultants. Another of Scotland's great exports - the ability to pass on real knowledge and first-hand experience is being lost.

This, Mr Finnie, is a real issue which you have the power to influence. It is time for you to act.