Plans by DEFRA to impose a levy on farmers to finance future disease outbreaks without giving the industry a say on the development of animal health policy came under fire at the Royal Highland Show in advance of a meeting of stakeholders in London on Wednesday (27 June).
NFU Scotland accused DEFRA of reneging on a promise to give the industry a far greater say in policy as part of an agreement to share the cost of future disease controls.
“Any attempt by DEFRA to impose co-financing without co-responsibility will finish off any meaningful relationship between the UK department and the Scottish farming industry,” warned NFUS president, Jim McLaren. “DEFRA is going back on its word and negotiations on future health policy are in danger of falling apart.”
Although animal health policy is devolved to the Scottish Executive in Scotland, budgetary control remains with DEFRA which is under massive pressure from the Treasury to slash costs following the debacle of Single Farm Payments in England.
NFUS agreed to enter into negotiations on co-financing on the understanding that stakeholders would have the opportunity of helping to shape future animal health policy.
“Sharing the cost of disease outbreaks represents a massive shift in Government policy with huge implications for farmers,” said Mr McLaren. “We have always said we will not even contemplate signing up to share any of the costs of a disease outbreak while the UK Government is so clearly failing to address major animal health issues such as meat import controls. We demand a proper and established say in policy.”
DEFRA has already imposed cuts in animal health research and brucellosis testing without any consultation with the industry, in response to Treasury pressure.
“The latest signals suggest DEFRA ministers are planning to renege on their promise of policy sharing and are attempting to force through an animal disease levy and other costs on the industry,” said Mr McLaren. “If it does so, the talks are over as far as we are concerned.”
NFUS is believed to have the support of Scotland Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Richard Lochhead, in their stand-off with DEFRA.
Co-financing has been on the cards since the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 which cost taxpayers £8 billion. DEFRA initially proposed the creation of a 50:50 government and industry partnership to develop and enforce animal health and welfare policy.
“We felt that was something worth talking about even although we already have an excellent partnership on animal health matters with the Scottish Executive,” said NFUS chief executive, Andy Robertson, who will represent the union at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Having entered the talks in good faith, any remaining trust will disappear if DEFRA insist on imposing costs for nothing in return,” said Mr Robertson. “We need to see the colour of their money.”
DEFRA is aiming to get legislation on co-financing through Parliament by November which NFUS say is an impossible timetable if the industry is to be properly consulted.
Mr Robertson has suggested that widening the remit of the Fallen Stock Company could be a way forward to implement the proposed government and industry partnership.
For more on the Royal Highland Show keep an eye on our Taking Stock Blog