It shouldn't happen to a Chief Vet

Government cuts in livestock inspection budgets leave us exposed to disease, argues Emily Green
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The Independent Online
There is a job going at the Ministry of Agriculture. The title is Chief Veterinary Officer. According to the advertisement, the successful candidate will be a "leading expert on veterinary policy", part of the ministry team for "implementing government policy". He or she will be the "leading presenter of veterinary issues to the media on behalf of the Government" and will "represent the United Kingdom in the European Union on veterinary issues".

Granted, this does involve being an international apologist for BSE, but the successful candidate can expect from pounds 61,000 to pounds 95,000 a year. Big salary, big kingdom. The Chief Vet controls, at a rough count, 230 veterinarians in 30-odd licensed Animal Health Offices in England and Wales. Alas, not for long.

Read the ad carefully for the line: "The Veterinary Field Service, which is part of the CVO's command now, is likely to become an Executive Agency within the next 18 months." In layman's terms, part of the successful candidate's job will be getting rid of the thing.

The business of dividing up Whitehall ministries into executive agencies began in 1988. It was the idea of Sir Robin Ibbs, official "efficiency adviser" to Margaret Thatcher. Sir Robin, who came from ICI, had the idea that the Civil Service would be much more effective run in dozens of agencies, with "ownership boards". There would be annual reports boasting about increasing chargeable services. Civil servants would refer to their ministries as "customers". In short, agencies would be like private companies.

There is quite a list, from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate to HMSO. Some, such as HMSO, have been completely privatised. Others are neatly divided parcels on a conveyor belt moving towards the private sector. Veterinary surveillance is divided into two agencies and the veterinary field service. Most Britons do not understand which does what, and lest they attempt to learn, the agencies change configuration and names every couple of years.

For example, the six-year-old agency the Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge, after much upheaval, went through a further agency review last year and in October 1995 was renamed the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. This gave it control of the veterinary inspection centres, the eyes and ears of the ministry for new and emerging livestock diseases. To judge by its 1995/96 Annual Review, it is more proud of its book-keeping than animal health: "We continued to improve the delivery of our business and financial systems and the quality of the service to our principal customer, Maff [Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food]."

Few at the new agency think themselves capable of repeating the early BSE work of 1986-87, in which they spotted the disease and quickly traced it to feed mills. This was pre-agency, before 12 of its 24 inspection centres had closed, including the one in Wye that spotted BSE. (Hugh Fraser, a scientist involved, says it was done efficiently precisely because they did not have to beg for funds to do urgent work.)

To be successful now, an agency must not look for what it does not want to find. Take the Meat Hygiene Service, which has a well publicised policy of leaving the spotting of irregularities in abattoirs to investigative reporters. Perhaps it thinks Broadcasting House could issue the fines. It may come to this: in 1990, as BSE was peaking in British herds and there was a salmonella epidemic in its poultry flocks, the government decided to close the Meat Research Institute at Bristol, which worked on meat inspection. It cannot come as any surprise, then, that last week the Consumers' Association issued a report saying that 32 out of 90 chickens tested by the Royal College of Surgeons were condemned as "unfit for human consumption".

Three weeks ago, the Government announced plans to privatise large chunks of Maff's advisory service, which counsels farmers on good husbandry, pollution control and so forth. This system had long ago gone through "agency process", which introduced charging structures for most services. For example, The Archers' Eddie Grundy would not only have to pay for the inspection that condemns his milking parlour, he would pay for another to have it reopened.

As for the veterinary field service, the network next in line for agency status, it is certainly lean if no longer mean. By way of explaining the running down of spot checks on farms, William Waldegrave told the House in May 1995 that visits "should be carried out where there is some reason to believe problems may be found". It is a considerate chicken that notifies the ministry that it thinks it may have salmonella.

This field service, now cruelly nicknamed "rent-a-plod", was once the envy of Europe. In seven short months, between 25 October 1967 and 4 June 1968, it quashed an outbreak of foot-and-mouth. Since then, it has lost a third of its workforce (going from 330 to 230). During the same period, the number of sheep in the country has increased from 30 million to 40 million. If foot-and-mouth returns, the ministry ("the customer") will have to hire in the cat-and-dog trade to deal with it. If private vets are unsuccessful, and the disease rips through the sheep flock, along with the UK population of cattle, goats and pigs, it will not be the agency's fault, but that of the nation's poodle parlours.

This sheep-to-vet ratio is important. According to the 1995 report of the Chief Veterinary Officer, there were only 116 cases of scrapie among Britain's 40 million sheep. Perhaps we could fine the sheep who don't report themselves ill.

The agency process has left the veterinary inspection network only just in state hands - albeit in the form of easily sold agencies. The final irony may be that the services are so degraded that an incoming Labour government might see privatisation as improvement.

It should be shouted loudly that what the Government has saved on science and veterinary care, it has paid in compensation. According to the ministry, between pounds 53.4m and pounds 65m has been spent on BSE research since 1988. During the same period, pounds 105.2m has been spent on compensation to farmers, pounds 43.9m on slaughter and disposal of carcasses and pounds 35.1m on "inspection, sampling, enforcement administration".

This is small beer next to the cost of the destruction scheme for veal calves and cattle more than 30 months old. Compensation for this will be pounds l.037bn in 1996-97; pounds 748m in 1997-98; pounds 685m in 1998-99. The pathologist who first discovered BSE was recently asked to explain the reason for the destruction scheme at a meeting of the Royal Society of Medicine. He couldn't.

It only looks like a food safety initiative. It was decided on 25 March, when 20 giant food retailers, including Hillsdown, Whitbread, Unigate, Birds Eye Wall's, Argyle, Northern Foods, Waitrose, Somerfield, Sainsbury, Grand Met and Tesco, simply decided they would not take beef from animals more than 30 months old. The only answer was to kill them. At the taxpayer's cost.

For anyone who feels up to explaining why the UK is pulping a million beef steer because it has a disease dying out in its dairy herds, the closing date for applications to become the Chief Veterinary Officer is tomorrow. The Ministry of Agriculture is an equal opportunities employer.