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Sharing Responsibilities and Costs for Animal Disease

Government Policy and the Way Forward

By Caroline Cranbrook

(Vice-President Suffolk CLA Branch, Member CLA Policy Committee & Chair of the East of England Grazing Forum)

Prevention and control of animal disease are of incalculable importance to the livestock industry and to the health and well-being of the human population. Some diseases, such as foot and mouth, only affect livestock. Others, such as bovine TB and avian flu, are a real threat to human health. It is in the interests of everyone that animal diseases should be prevented and controlled as scientifically, efficiently, economically and humanely as possible. At present this is not happening. The devastating spread of bovine TB is a dreadful example of the failure of existing policies, resulting in huge costs to the industry, to individuals, to animals, to the taxpayer and to the reputation of British livestock.

The regulatory framework of animal health and welfare remains excessively complex, bureaucratic and expensive. At present, 14 governmental bodies are involved, some with overlapping responsibilities. Channels of communication are often ill-defined, as are lines of responsibility. Links between scientific research and policy are particularly opaque. And the costs are enormous. Sometimes this has been the consequence of ill-conceived government policies, such as the deplorable, unscientific, impractical contiguous cull of livestock in the first foot and mouth epidemic. At the same time, the EU requires a mandatory framework for sharing responsibilities and costs to be in place in all member states by 2010. Meanwhile, Defra's budget is continually being reduced.

So, for all these reasons, Defra plans to share responsibility and costs of animal disease with the livestock industry by introducing new arrangements, though it intends to keep animal welfare separate as part of Defra. The new framework will involve the whole livestock industry - even those who rear game-birds - but possibly not horse owners.

Change is urgent and inevitable. Following extensive consultations, Defra has put forward a variety of proposals as to how sharing responsibility and costs will work. The one supported by the CLA, the NFU and the British Veterinary Association is that a new body, a Non-Ministerial Department (similar to the Food Standards Agency), would be established, governed by an animal health board and staffed by personnel transferred from Defra. A joint advisory working group on the proposals is being set up but, although it has a chair (the economist Rosemary Radcliffe), to date it has no members. Government expects the total cost to be £44 million a year, with £22 million coming from the industry. Start-up costs are estimated at £12 million and running costs at £2 million a year.

The CLA, NFU and BVA all agree that we need a new approach to animal health and welfare (which should remain together) and that this should be based on a genuine partnership with Defra. This is crucial. Although in principle they support the proposal, there are concerns about the new board's powers and independence regarding policy. There are also other concerns relating to membership of the board, to staffing, to cost and to a number of other outstanding issues, such as animal welfare.

As regards sharing responsibility for animal health and welfare, the CLA is very clear that the new board must be separated from ministerial politics. It should be truly independent of ministerial control and have real responsibility, not only for animal health but also for animal welfare. The two cannot be separated and both must be taken out of politics and be given stronger links to science. Logically, the existing Animal Health Agency and the Farm Welfare Council should become the executive agencies of the new body. Prevention and control of exotic diseases, particularly the zoonoses (those which infect people as well as animals) should be government-funded as they provide a public good. The new body should be empowered to simplify and reduce the regulatory framework. It should also be allowed to operate at EU level and be able to advise ministers when they negotiate in Europe.

An unresolved problem is the lack of uniformity across the United Kingdom. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will operate differently. This will have serious consequences. Disease does not recognise frontiers. If different systems and standards are introduced in different UK countries, this will inevitably distort competition, making livestock farming and disease control more difficult. The livestock industry and its markets, abattoirs, meat plants and the supermarkets are all closely interconnected and operate freely across the United Kingdom. Introducing new artificial boundaries relating to disease would inevitably distort the industry, making it uncompetitive and more difficult to operate.

The CLA has concerns about the membership of the new board. Defra suggests members should be appointed according to Nolan rules. This is fine for Defra's own appointees but if the industry is paying for 50% of the costs, then it should be allowed to choose the members who represent it from its own sectors - beef, sheep, pigs and poultry. I suggest that smallholders and the rare breeds should also be represented, as should the private sector vets and probably LACORS (Local Authorities Regulatory Services), which has an important regulatory role. The Chief Veterinary Officer, together with Defra's chief scientist should certainly have seats on the board. It is essential that strategy and good practice are based on the best up-to-date science and on the practical, local knowledge that the livestock sectors and their vets can provide. This should go some way to improving and making more transparent vertical and horizontal communication, the lack of which has been a constant criticism in the past.

Staffing needs to be looked at carefully. Defra employees should not automatically be transferred to the new body. Many will have unique knowledge and expertise. Even so, if we are starting afresh, then individuals should be invited to apply for jobs which have terms and conditions similar to private industry.

The industry should certainly help fund the new organisation. However, the CLA is unhappy with Defra's proposals. Trust first needs to be rebuilt between government and livestock farmers, many of whose businesses are being crippled by government's unwillingness to take measure to control bTB. Imposing a new cost structure before setting up the new independent body would completely undermine confidence in it. The CLA is also critical of Defra's calculations in its Impact Assessment, as is the National Audit Office, which has stated that the Department does not have sufficiently robust financial or performance information on controlling diseases to assess routinely the costs and benefits of intervention, and to underpin a transparent and equitable cost-sharing scheme'.

It is unclear how Defra has calculated the cost of £44 million a year. It has also under-estimated the costs already borne by the industry. We need better and more transparent cost analysis and a new consultation on the true costs, disease by disease, sector by sector, before we agree to pay our share. The £12 million set-up and £2 million a year running costs seem excessive and need to be detailed in full and reduced. The example of the Meat Hygiene Service (the enforcement agency of the Food Standards Agency) is not encouraging. In 1995, the total cost of the MHS was £29 million but by 2007 this had gone up to £94 million, an increase of over 320%. It is essential that costs are tightly controlled by the new animal health body, otherwise it will be the end of livestock farming. Insurance has also been suggested by Defra, but it is not possible to insure against exotic disease, while commercial insurers say they are unable to assess the risks and at present are unlikely to provide the sort of cover suggested by Defra.

Defra's responsibility and cost sharing initiative provides a unique opportunity for the livestock industry, the vets, the scientists, the regulators and Defra itself to revolutionise and make more efficient the prevention and control of animal disease. However, we must end up with a better, more science-based, practical, streamlined affordable system which is less bureaucratic, with costs properly evaluated, reduced and controlled. There has to be a genuine partnership. And this can only happen if the new Non-Ministerial Department is truly independent, responsible for both animal health and welfare and with genuine powers of decision. We cannot go on as we are but we have to get it right.

Published by the East Anglian Times on September 12 2009