Government plans to share the cost of combating animal disease with livestock producers across England are based on statistics which fail to reflect reality, it has emerged.
Official figures accompanying the controversial proposals appear unclear and out of date, said farm leaders following the publication of the long-awaited draft Animal Health Bill on Monday (25 January).
Launched by DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn, the document sets out proposals to establish a new independent body for animal health. Taxpayers will benefit from savings of up to £21m a year once implemented. But farmers will have to pay.
Mr Benn said: “I believe that a partnership through the new animal health body – where the industry can contribute to decisions about animal health – will produce better management of disease and reduce overall risks and costs.”
But statistics buried in a government impact assessment examining the benefits of proposals to share anti-disease measures with farmers suggest that the average dairy herd has only 39 cows, and the average pig unit has only 16 sows (see below).
Farm leaders lambasted the Bill, questioning its benefits, the statistics and lack of costings, which will be dealt with separately at a later date. The full, long-term cost implications for producers remained unknown, they warned.
The new body would have no fund-raising powers. NFU officials fear this could effectively pave the way for an animal tax, with the Treasury raising money from farmers and then deciding how much to send to DEFRA.
NFU president Peter Kendall said: “Livestock farmers are already paying their fair share. They contribute significantly to the overall cost of animal health and welfare and adhere to strict biosecurity on farm.”
Tenant farmers accused the government of displaying unholy haste in its plans. The DEFRA bulldozer was rolling along hoping to push aside any opposition it encounters along the way, said Greg Bliss, chairman of the Tenant Farmers’ Association.
“The fact is that this is not about animal health delivery but about the government’s desire to pass exchequer costs onto the industry and I simply cannot see how an independent body will improve the delivery of animal health policy.”
Milk producers also hit out at the bill. It was crucial that the funding mechanisms did not have a negative impact, said Lyndon Edwards, chairman of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers.
“We simply cannot accept further farmer costs as part of government’s cost-sharing measures when in fact placing emphasis on measures such as biosecurity will have a cost in itself.”
DEFRA said details regarding cost-sharing measures would be introduced under a future finance Bill. Cost and responsibility sharing had been recommended by an independent report following the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.