Fighting to preserve high standards - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Fighting to preserve high standards

VETERINARY PRACTICE
has an end-of-term chat with BVA president
Harvey Locke as he prepares for the annual
congress in London later this month

THERE is a nagging fear at the back of his or her mind whenever a new BVA president puts on the chain of office for the first time at the association’s annual meeting: “Will a serious disease outbreak occur on my watch?” It happened to David Tyson with the foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001 and for David Catlow when bluetongue arrived in Britain in 2007. But as he nears the end of his presidential term, the current occupant of that particular hot seat, Harvey Locke, is grateful that he has not had to face the challenge of leading the profession’s political and scientific response to a major disease crisis. Instead of an animal health problem, the president’s main concern over the past year has been a problem with Animal Health, the government agency bearing that name. Asked what has been the most difficult and time-consuming issue that he has been dealing with, Harvey doesn’t hesitate in pointing to the dispute that followed the agency’s sudden, unilateral announcement that bovine TB testing duties would be put out to tender.

Frosty relations

That was in May 2010 just a few days after the formation of the new coalition government. Then in October, the BVA’s concern over the government’s commitment to supporting high standards in disease control was further shaken by the savage 30% cut over four years in the DEFRA budget announced in the “comprehensive spending review”. So from May until the end of the year, the relations between BVA and the government were frostier than anyone at Mansfield Street could remember. From the beginning of this year, however, there were signs from the DEFRA minister, Caroline Spelman, that her department wanted to re-open a dialogue with the veterinary professional associations on the future working arrangements for Official Veterinarians. The department has realised that the tendering process might not deliver the sort of savings originally envisaged and decided to rethink its plans, he says. The negotiation process has been slow and tricky but Harvey is reasonably optimistic that Animal Health (now the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency) will come up with practical proposals for a new working partnership with private practitioners. There is even a prospect of DEFRA providing the budget to allow OVs to take a more active role in implementing government policy on disease control. That would herald a major improvement in relations between the BVA and the government but Harvey is more relieved that the situation hasn’t got any worse. “Officials have been made aware that destroying the network of farm animal practices is something you will do at your peril. The relationship that farm animal vets have with their clients, the local surveillance and the 24-hour service that they provide are extremely important and a policy that affects that situation is likely to have unforeseen consequences.” If a lasting solution is found to the perennial problem of OV fees, then that would reflect well on any BVA presidency. But Harvey insists that any credit should be shared between the officer team and the permanent staff. Nor does he intend to rest on his laurels during his year as senior vicepresident: “I don’t think you should look at the presidential role as a oneyear thing, you are part of a team of three people and it is a three-year commitment.”

Achievements in Europe

The BVA team can claim a number of other achievements over the past year, notably in Europe. Lobbying alone and as part of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, the association worked hard to persuade the European Parliament to reject controls on practitioners’ rights to prescribe veterinary medicines. More recently, the Commission appears to have accepted the association’s argument that treatment of incoming pets against the Echinococcus tapeworm should be retained after harmonisation of the arrangements on rabies. “We are told that they have also agreed to having the treatment administered by a veterinary surgeon rather than self certification by the animal owner, which we felt was a very important safeguard.” Harvey says he has been pleasantly surprised to find how much the opinions of the BVA and its specialist divisions are valued by European colleagues. But to retain that respect, it is important for British veterinarians to contribute to the work of the profession’s international bodies. So he welcomed the election of Northern Ireland’s deputy CVO, Robert Huey, to the FVE board and Leicestershire practitioner Andrew Robinson’s efforts as secretary general of the Union of European Veterinary Practitioners.

Smaller council

Back home, long-planned changes to the BVA’s internal structure have come to fruition during Harvey’s presidential year. This has resulted in a reduction in the number of council members from more than 70 to a more manageable 42, and replacing the old territorial divisions with larger regions. Harvey says that the first meetings of the slimmed down council show that the system is working and the availability of council papers through the community forum section of the BVA website has ensured that there is strong grassroots involvement in the council process.
The fact that an impressive 30% of the association’s membership voted in the council elections earlier this year is a sign of a healthy democratic organisation, he says. No one active in professional politics can expect to have their own way all of the time and the most depressing features of the past year have been the slow progress on two issues close to his heart as a small animal practitioner: dangerous dogs and compulsory microchipping. Although Lord Redesdale’s private member’s bill on dangerous dogs has successfully passed through the House of Lords, the Government has made it clear that the bill will hit a brick wall then it arrives at the Commons. Meanwhile, he has been disappointed with the government’s indifference to the arguments of the Microchipping Alliance on the considerable advantages of being able to rapidly re-home a lost animal once it has been permanently identified. “I fail to understand why they have been so slow to recognise the benefits from the savings that are likely to be made by the local authorities which have to look after these strays. And it will cost the government nothing because the infrastructure is already there with the current voluntary system.” That is one of the frustrations for anyone involved in professional politics – that progress on some issues happens so slowly that one has dropped off the perch before seeing a plan reach completion. And other challenges are so massive that no one individual or organisation can hope to have any perceptible impact, such as the threat posed by increased tuition fees on efforts to maintain a demographically diverse profession.

Long-term issues

“We are concerned that students with comfortably-off and supportive parents will be the only ones who can afford to do a veterinary degree. We are also worried about the impact this will have on the willingness of graduates to make a career in research. These are long-term issues and the BVA will continue to work with its divisional representatives in the AVS and AVTRW to try and find some solutions.” Harvey is also aware of another weakness in the current structure for providing political representation for the veterinary profession – that is so dependent on developing a rapport between the officer teams of the various organisations. “One of the things that I talked about when I started my year was to try and make things less dependent on personalities. So we have been looking into some form of memo of understanding that sets out the working relationship between the BVA and its divisions. That way there is less likely to be confusion if the officers change at different times during the year.”

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