DEFRA animal health employees are threatening to strike in the New Year in a move that could jeopardise biosecurity and undermine farmers’ efforts to get back on their feet following this year’s major disease outbreaks.
The staff are currently being balloted on possible strike action, after 738 vets, animal health specialists and scientists – all members of the professional union Prospect – threw out a below-inflation pay offer of 2.9%.
Prospect national secretary Geraldine O’Connell said: “Our members feel this is a very sorry award for their dedication in a year when they have performed remarkably, often in emergency situations away from their homes and families.
“They have had to tackle the triple whammy of bluetongue, foot-and-mouth and avian flu, as well as the impact of the summer floods – on top of their day-to-day workloads.”
Commenting on the possibility of strike action, an NFU spokesman said that budget cuts threatened the very role the department is supposed to carry out on behalf of the industry. The Treasury has recently removed some £270m from DEFRA’s funding and it is also being asked to find additional administrative savings of 5%.
“The root of DEFRA’s problems is the inadequate recognition from the Treasury of the important role it plays,” said the NFU spokesman. “It is simply not given enough money to do the many vitally important jobs expected of it.
“Ultimately, it will be farming and the environment that will suffer from the consequent damage to staff morale and the threat of industrial action.”
Kim-Marie Haywood, director of the National Beef Association, said strike action could have an impact on getting the industry back on its feet after the recent disease outbreaks.
“Taking this action when there are so many outstanding animal health issues such as disease standstills and cost sharing proposals is particularly worrying,” she added.
“We are working out protocols for farmers who are currently in the bluetongue zones and there is potentially a window between January and March to allow movement from these zones.
“Obviously if DEFRA staff were to strike this would make this difficult to achieve.”
The ballot closes on 14 December, with potential action starting in early January. Members working in the National Disease Control Centre in Guildford, and the Local Disease Control Centre in Bury St Edmonds, working on the two current disease outbreaks, will be exempt fromindustrial action.