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Animal Health (England)

Volume 490: debated on Monday 30 March 2009

I am today announcing publication of a consultation document inviting views on the Government’s proposals to establish a new independent body for animal health in England.

No one wants animal disease outbreaks, with the resultant suffering or even death of the animals affected and the lost production and income for their owners. Some animal diseases can also pose a threat to public health.

Owners and keepers of animals have the primary responsibility for the health of their own animals and preventing the risk of any diseases they incur spreading to other animals or into the food chain. But preventing, controlling and eradicating some diseases often requires Government action which can disrupt normal business (particularly in the livestock sector) and interfere with people’s everyday lives. These measures can be costly for the Government to implement and costly to those affected. They are justified by the benefit of avoiding the greater impact and costs from the diseases themselves.

Some of these benefits are gained by taxpayers generally (through protection of public health). But in many cases (such as foot and mouth disease or bluetongue) the main benefits are to the owners of the livestock who might otherwise become infected.

Much of the livestock industry has called publicly for changes in the way animal health policies are determined. The Government have been discussing many of these issues with industry since Sir Iain Anderson’s inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Following the Government’s consultation document published in December 2007, policy options have been discussed with stakeholders and in the UK Responsibility and Cost Sharing Consultative Forum, which concluded its deliberations in July this year. These proposals build on the outcomes of this engagement with stakeholders and have benefited from the constructive challenge of the England implementation group.

The Government are seeking views on two fundamental changes to modernise the governance and funding of animal health policy: first, the establishment of a separate body for animal health in England run by an independent non-executive board including knowledge and experience from across the spectrum of interests in animal health; and secondly, a levy raised from livestock keepers according to the numbers and type of animals kept.

The proposed new body will provide greater transparency in decision making and increase confidence in the resultant policies. The body will continue to receive public funding for the bulk of its activities. The levy will be used to contribute to the costs of preparing for, and dealing with, exotic disease outbreaks. Those who gain from the eradication of these diseases will help pay for the costs of doing so, as Sir Iain Anderson recommended.

In setting up a new framework it is important to retain and build on the strengths of the current system. These include the effective protection of public health in partnership with the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health; the partnership working with industry already developed, for example in tackling bluetongue; the veterinary and scientific expertise in DEFRA and its agencies; and the delivery capability of the Animal Health Executive Agency, as well as close co-operation with the devolved Administrations.

The fundamental changes proposed will require primary legislation. In the light of responses to this consultation the Government intend to prepare a draft Bill for consultation and scrutiny.

The consultation document sets out our proposals in greater detail and is accompanied by a partial impact assessment. But there is much still to be decided. Views and comments are invited to help develop these ahead of draft legislation.

These proposals should establish a governance and funding structure for tackling animal diseases that helps to reduce the risks and costs; creates confidence in the policies decided; and ensures those who benefit share the costs with taxpayers.

This consultation concerns England although it is proposed that the new organisation will take on the UK and GB responsibilities currently undertaken by DEFRA. I intend to continue discussions with ministerial colleagues in other parts of the UK to ensure continued co-operation and co-ordination on animal disease policies.