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Tue 19th Oct,2004

14-10-2004 BVA North of Ireland Dinner - Presidential Speech

BVA Annual North of Ireland Dinner - Dr Bob McCracken's Presidential Speech
Galgorm Manor, Ballymena
Thursday, 14 October 2004

Opening remarks

My Lord, my Lady, Mr Presidents, colleagues and distinguished guests, I bid you a warm welcome to this year's North of Ireland Veterinary Association and British Veterinary Association dinner here in the lovely settings of the Galgorm Manor Hotel. This is, as some of you may know, the first engagement in any new BVA President's diary and is usually approached with some circumspection by the incoming President, heeding the dire warnings of the outgoing President about excessive hospitality and over indulgence, followed the next morning by a traditional Ulster fry.

I thus find myself at an advantage over previous Presidents, having partaken of this hospitality on a number of occasions albeit as the fox rather than the chicken. I am sure you can appreciate that this particular year and event, which we always look forward to and consider of considerable importance in our calendar, is particularly close to my heart as a native son and thus what I say has not only a political message but also a passionately personal one.

This time, last year I had just returned from a year in Malta and had the opportunity to proof-read President Tim Greet's speech to this gathering. I know that politics continued in my absence but I was amazed at the rate of change in 12 months!  County Down was no longer with us!  Imagine my surprise to read about the 5 Counties of Northern Ireland!!   

One thing that has changed throughout the UK is that devolution is now firmly with us.  It is now incumbent upon us all (within the UFU or the BVA etc.) to meet and debate with both Westminster and the appropriate Local Assembly.  I am conscious that the NIVA and AVSPNI have recognised this additional responsibility and I can assure them that central BVA will do what it can to assist them in this important role.

Change has always been with us and, whilst we often dislike change, it is often for the good. The disturbing element is that the rate and magnitude of change appears to be ever increasing.  There is no doubt that the agri-food industry here in Northern Ireland faces many challenges and changes to its environment in the months and years ahead, such as to quail even the stoutest hearts.

The expansion of the EU, CAP reform, loss of Objective 1 status and the implementation of EU environmental legislation such as the Nitrates Directive will take all the ingenuity, drive and flair that the industry can muster if it is to move forward into new markets, as indeed it must, if it is to progress or even survive.

In Northern Ireland we are fortunately still close to the soil and there is less of the urban/rural split that is obvious in the rest of the UK. I am sure that our small size is also a factor and that in reality town and countries do not see themselves as specifically separate. Most NI city dwellers have rural parents or grandparents and this leads to a more objective understanding of rural matters.  Those factors mean we can more readily appreciate the need to ensure that all our communities are lively, thriving societies - including the rural community.  For that reason I am hopeful that in Northern Ireland at least Government will recognise that the Agri-food Industry remains a significant factor in the economy of Northern Ireland.

This is most obvious to me in the position of rural veterinary practices in Northern Ireland compared to their counterparts in GB.  In Northern Ireland the rural practices remain as viable concerns in sharp contrast to many of those in other areas of the UK and indeed the same decline is seen in other parts of Europe and in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The additional funding stream provided by TB testing is undoubtedly a significant factor in this difference. Many practices have seen a considerable drop in routine calls and have responded by developing routine herd health and fertility programmes as a service for the larger clients but it is doubtful if income from these sources alone will provide adequate profit to remain as a viable concern.

Another important funding stream is the dispensing of veterinary medicines. As you will all be aware the Marsh Report and, more recently, the Enquiry by the Competition Commission have recommended changes in the dispensing of veterinary medicines.  It is inevitable that these changes will reduce the income of the farm animal veterinarian and with it, the survival of farm animal practices.  The BVA remains concerned that the doctrinaire views of the Competition Commission and DTI have been pursued without reference to the welfare of animals and public safety. The inevitable increased costs will result in less veterinary consultations especially by those who need them most - not least the elderly.  Additionally, we have already seen the creation of so called 'motorway' vets who prescribe and dispense for animals not under their care.  Will these practices be able to provide the fire brigade service currently provided by local practices when they have driven the latter out?

I would not wish you to think that I am an advocate of some sort of paternalistic hand out. Rather it is my view and that of the BVA that the maintenance of rural veterinary practices is essential for the proper surveillance of many animal diseases and for the welfare of livestock. This surveillance is necessary for public health as well as the economic welfare of the State. Failure of epizootic disease surveillance could potentially have a wide ranging impact on the economy of the UK as a whole. Similarly, proper surveillance is a prerequisite of meeting the OIE obligations relating to trade and if we have aspirations to develop wider world markets we must be able to demonstrate that capacity. 

As BVA has said repeatedly, and at the risk of repeating myself, there is public benefit in the prevention of expensive epizootic diseases such as foot and mouth, in disease surveillance, in the elimination of zoonotic diseases like tuberculosis, and of course in food safety. Government cannot simply wash its hands of such responsibilities leaving everything to market forces and must weigh the cost implications of its strategies against the cost to the nation if disease control fails. 

In supporting DEFRA's partnership approach to the implementation of the veterinary surveillance strategy, the BVA is in no doubt that the cost will need to be borne by all the beneficiaries including the Government.  The commitment to a partnership approach must not allow the Government to negate its responsibility in this regard.

The veterinary profession has much to offer in terms of manpower, knowledge and expertise. We are willing and able to play a greater part in our industry's efforts to turn the threats into challenges.  But we cannot do so if we no longer exist in adequate numbers and the BVA has grave concerns about the decline in farm animal practices and in the advancing age of those remaining! 

The BVA is of the view that, at the clinical level, we are no better equipped to deal with another FMD outbreak than we were in 2001.  We believe that an improvement in this area is dependent on viable farm animal practices. In partnership with Government we need to continue to strive to resolve this issue, not least since there is strong evidence that without some sort of intervention the future for rural veterinary practice is bleak.   As I have already mentioned some parts of GB already have an inadequate veterinary resource to service the local livestock population and if nothing is done to address this the problem is expected to deteriorate to such an extent that the future of the Government's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (as well as its surveillance strategy) will be jeopardised.   The BVA has no doubt that Government must demonstrate its commitment to our livestock industry through its willingness to fund, at least initially until the benefits can be demonstrated to farmers, many of the initiatives contained within the animal health and welfare strategy.    

I understand that you will shortly be issuing an outline of your Animal Health and Welfare Strategy.  I welcome this and ask that you consider the potential resource which currently exists in the countryside here and how you can make best use of this for the benefit of the consumer, industry and veterinary practice in Northern Ireland.
Having only the day before yesterday given evidence before the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into the draft Animal Welfare Bill I cannot miss this opportunity to stress how supportive BVA is of the bill.  This is a Bill with inbuilt flexibility that aims to prevent suffering as well as take appropriate action when it happens.  We welcome the drive towards promoting a welfare culture (through the Codes of Practice) and believe this is a sound approach.  Anyone involved with animals will have a responsibility for animal welfare and rightly so - they have a duty to care for them.

We do, of course have some reservations.  Implementation and inspections under current legislation is all too often inconsistent and not adequately effective.  Whilst the draft Bill aims to prevent suffering we have to acknowledge that it will never achieve this totally.  Nevertheless, the new Act must be enforced in a consistent and effective manner - and in a manner that allows action other than the ultimate prosecution.  We must be able to have a twofold action, namely advice and encouragement followed, if necessary, by prosecution - the carrot & the stick.   Government must also ensure that there will be adequate resources allocated within the Bill.  Strategy without action is futile and sterile - and holds us all to ridicule!

While the State Veterinary Service in Northern Ireland is still part of central Government its future has been subjected to a recent review.  The BVA remains concerned that agentisation of the SVS in GB, whilst providing an efficient implementing SVS, may lead to a Page Street Policy centre that will become divorced from the industries and environment that, through its Minister, it seeks to serve.  To the BVA's mind policy formation and implementation are inextricably linked, and as our response to the Defra consultation makes clear, there is genuine concern that the decision to separate them is an act of obeisance to current political dogma rather than a rational response to perceived problems.

I regard it is as a privilege to serve as BVA President and it gave me considerable pride to be proposed by my NIVA President - John Hill.  John spoke with eloquence even if he did exaggerate my few talents. 

Closing remarks

The agri-food industry continues to face increasingly difficult challenges.  Food can be imported from outside the EU, often at below EU-production costs.  High standards of animal welfare and food safety are demanded of our farmers whilst the perception is that such demands are not imposed on our rivals.

Notwithstanding these challenges it is right and proper that animals are reared in an environment that ensures proper welfare and health standards.  The BVA will continue to strive to work in partnership with farmers and with Government to maintain and enhance the health and welfare of our animals and of consumers of animal products.  Whilst we can have different views we do work closely and effectively with the farming unions.  We also work closely with Government.  But "consultation" is not "partnership" and we believe that whilst Government must continue to consult they must also play their part in providing an environment where meaningful partnerships and alliances can be built - and where they are truly synergistic. 

The BVA is firmly of the view that the Government's Animal Health and Welfare Strategy Document is an excellent document - and we have recognised that for the past two years.  But strategy must become a reality.  A Strategy without Action (a Vision without Action) is an hallucination.