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Fears voiced over disease surveillance capability as Defra spending cuts set to be revealed

Chancellor George Osborne will today reveal the scale of cuts to be imposed on Government Departments, including Defra, prompting renewed fears about the UK’s ability to protect itself from animal disease.
Will spending cuts compromise Defra's ability to detect and control exotic diseases
Will spending cuts compromise Defra's ability to detect and control exotic diseases

Defra has been urged to ensure it does not allow harsh cuts to its budget set to be confirmed today to further compromise its already-diminishing ability to keep the UK safe from livestock disease.


Chancellor George Osborne will deliver his Autumn Statement and Spending Review at 12.30pm today, detailing £20 billion of Departmental cuts.


Defra reached an agreement with the Treasury earlier this month over a settlement that is expected to see cuts of around 30 per cent made to its resource budget over the next four years.


This comes on top of huge cuts already made since 2010 that has seen Defra’ budget reduced from more than £3 billion to just over £2bn in 2015-16.


Ahead of the announcement, the National Sheep Association (NSA) and Sheep Veterinary Society (SVS) have come together to highlight the need for Defra to prioritise animal health and disease surveillance as it handles the latest round of Government cuts.


The two organisations acknowledged the ‘huge difficulties’ facing Government departments affected by this latest round of austerity, but called for certain elements to take ‘very high priority in the ongoing budget that Defra is left with’.


NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “Animal health, disease and surveillance are essential to protect the efficiency of the livestock sector, to protect our export markets, and to protect public health from zoonoses.”


He said NSA would also like to the continuing development and support of export markets remain ‘very high up that list’, as well as efforts continuing to cut red tape for farmers something he said could help Defra ‘actually free up money for areas of high priority’.


The Sheep Veterinary Society said it shared this concern about disease surveillance, warning the Government’s veterinary capacity had already been stretched to the limit.


Tim Bebbington, SVS president, said: “Surveillance for new and emerging diseases and action to control them will be severely compromised as the State Veterinary Service virtually evaporates.


“Already cuts have been widespread and deep; we barely have enough capability now and further cuts will destroy it.


“If the Government is relying on private veterinary practice to provide emergency manpower at times of need it will be disappointed.


“The new OV contractual arrangements have eroded any lingering goodwill towards the managers of the State Veterinary Service.”


He highlighted 2015 as the 150-year anniversary of the State Veterinary Service, with the numerous exotic disease outbreaks that have been identified and countered during that time.


This has become increasingly important as globalisation, frequent air travel and enlarged EU markets for free trade continue to provide the potential for animal diseases to spread if not monitored and checked.


These warnings echoed comments made by the British Veterinary Association earlier this month.


BVA president Sean Wensley said: "In recent years we have already seen the impact of significant cuts to Defra’s budget on veterinary fees for TB testing and other OV services and on disease surveillance.


"Our major concern is that more cuts in these areas could further erode the UK’s preparedness for a disease outbreak, which could have massive implications for animal and human health, animal welfare and the reputation of UK agriculture.”


Questioned on the cuts, Defra Secretary Liz Truss has insisted ensuring Defra’s ability to respond to emergencies like major disease outbreaks and flooding remains a ’major priority’.


Instead Defra Ministers have been insisting the bulk of the savings would be made through closer working relations within the ‘Defra family’ of 34 arm’s length bodies.


This will include agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency sharing functions like press and IT and the sale of property as organisations physically come together. There will also be significant redundancies across the Defra family.


All spending areas are likely to come under scrutiny, including the big areas of flood defence, particularly in rural areas, and animal health, as well as research where the cut backs have already started.


There will also be increasing moves by Defra to recover the costs of services it provides.


Smaller projects, such as Defra’s support for the Campaign for the Environment, will also come under severe pressure.

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Where the Defra cuts could fall

See our in-depth analysis here outlining how Defra could set about slashing its budget over the next four years.


In summary, measures include:


  • Further redundancies across Defra and its 34 arm's-length bodies.
  • Closer working between Defra's bodies, particularly where there is duplication, for example, Natural England, Environment Agency and Forestry Commission. This includes more sharing of functions like IT, HR and media functions.
  • Removing or reducing spending on various projects. For example, Defra spending on the Campaign for the Farmed Environment is under threat.
  • Devolving policy to local level or, in other words, asking others to do the work. This includes giving farmers and landowners more responsibility to carry out their own flood maintenance work.
  • Reducing spending on research and, in some cases, looking for alternative funding sources.
  • 'Smarter policy', for example using satellite technology to reduce the number of physical inspections on farms.
  • Charging/cost sharing - increasingly charging for services such as environmental permits and licences.
  • This principle will apply in animal health, with, for example, certain aspects of TB control, such as testing, compensation and reactor removal, likely to come under the spotlight in terms of 'who pays?'
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