Cost sharing plans on track despite Queen’s speech no-show

The government will press ahead with plans to share the cost of combating animal disease with farmers across England – despite the absence of proposals in the Queen’s Speech.

Proposed legislationoutlining “responsibility and cost sharing” plans will be tabled in the New Year. The draft Animal Health Bill will include the legal basis that a new independent body for animal health will take.

Publication of the document is likely to fuel fears that ministers are prepared to ride roughshod over the recommendations of a stakeholder group examining the best way of implementing cost sharing. It is not due to report its findings for another year.

Economist and government adviser Rosemary Radcliffe, who is chairing the working group, acknowledged that the draft Bill may “engender an element of alarm” among livestock producers who fear their sector could be landed with a hefty bill.

But she rejected the suggestion that the draft Bill meant ministers had already made up their minds about the new animal health body. The lengthy legislative process meant a Bill could go through a lot of change between draft and enactment.

“There is a long process of Bill scrutiny which is the reason why, if you want a new body at all, which we might by 2012, you really have to start the process now, otherwise you don’t have the time to do it. So it is not a done deal at all.”

Although the draft Bill would outline the government’s intentions, its contents would be subject to change. It was unlikely to be passed for some time and much important detail would be subject to secondary, rather than primary legislation.

Only English farmers will be affected by the cost-sharing plans – which have been much criticised by livestock leaders. Devolution means Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are free to make their own arrangements.

But farmers hoping that the impending General Election will scupper the government’s plans may not see their wishes fulfilled. The Tories support the principle of cost sharing as long as farmers are given a say in policy making.

A DEFRA spokesman said ministers wanted to develop “appropriate mechanisms” which would help share the responsibilities and costs of animal disease control between government and the farming industry.

He confirmed: “The government intends to bring forward a draft Animal Health Bill, which would establish a new independent body for animal health in England. We aim to publish the bill in early January in good time for the end of the session.”