Monday, February 27, 2012

Legal challenge

Farmers Guardian today report a legal challenge by the Badger Trust, against Defra's proposals for a farmer DIY badger cull. According to the report, the Trust will ask the court to overturn Defra’s decision on the basis of the following three points:
* That the culls, which Defra estimates will reduce TB incidence in cattle by 12-16 per cent after 9 years, will not meet the strict legal test of ‘preventing the spread of disease’ in the areas being licensed, and may ‘in fact amount to a recipe for spreading the disease’

* That the cost impact assessment underpinning DEFRA’s decision is flawed, as its cost assumptions are based on the farmer free-shooting option, estimated to be approximately 10 times cheaper than cage-trapping badgers before killing them). The trust claims that after the free-shooting method may be ruled out for being inhumane, ineffective or unsafe to the public in the pilots, leaving only the more costly ‘trap and shoot’ option until the end of the 4-year licence.

* That guidance which DEFRA issued to Natural England is invalid as killing badgers is not one of Natural England’s original functions, which are mainly focused on maintaining biodiversity. It claims culling badgers ‘for the prevention of spread of disease’ remains the Secretary of State’s own function under the relevant legislation..

It is not often that we would agree with the Badger Trust, but on two of these three points, we concur. It is difficult to see how anyone wanting to nail a potential Judicial Review would use as an example, a protocol so different from that which is proposed now, and costed so differently. As we have said numerous time, the RBCT Badger Dispersal Trial, using cage traps for 8 nights very occasionally, interrupted for at least a year with FMD and then having a change of protocol in 2004, showed us just how not to control tuberculosis in badgers. So why use its results, particularly the whole miserable 9 year span, especially as its Commander in Chief was quite open in his oral evidence, that culling badgers was certainly not going to be the outcome of 'his' trial?

The current proposals are for 6 weeks night shooting annually. Totally incomparable with the aforementioned charade, or even the smaller Clean Ring clearances effected by MAFF in response to cattle breakdowns until 1997. Both these and the later Thornbury badger clearance lasted for weeks only, but kept cattle and other mammals clear of TB for a decade or more. So why let the mathematical modellers loose with this rubbish, which refers to a different protocol, over a different time scale, as justification for any future cull?

Costs of this proposal are certainly variable, depending on who is speaking. Minister Jim Paice is sticking with his £1.4m per area, while the NFU reckon £5/acre or less. Which ever way you cut it, that is a huge gap. So cost v. benefit is a sticky one, But not so sticky is the Badger Trusts's assertion that controlling wildlife, 'to prevent the spread of disease' is an AHVLA competence.
It is, or it should be.

We covered that convoluted bundle of legislation in this posting. And from what we read, the chance to wrest disease control back from the quango calling itself 'Natural' England, and place it firmly in AHVLA's lap was October 2011. We posted this information in August last year and quoted NE's responsibilities under the Protection of Badgers Act thus:
Natural England is authorised to do so by what is known as “a Part 8 Agreement ” made in accordance with section 78 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006;
We pointed out that this involved not merely licenses to move badgers causing damage, but the issue of licences under Section 10(2)(a) of the Protection of Badgers Act (1992) which deals with preventing the spread of disease.

This agreement came into effect on 1st October 2006. It's duration is twenty years from that date, and a review is allowed for in five years. That was October 2011. Was an opportunity missed? We agree that AHVLA should most certainly have responsibility for controlling the spread of a Grde 1 zoonosis. That it was ever moved away is a matter of shame on the Department now calling itself DEFRA.

And if everyone else is as fed up as we are with the constant stream of library pictures of shiny, bushy tailed badgers to illustrate this polemic - here's one which died yesterday. Of tuberculosis.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

His master's voice

At the NFU conference this week, Defra minister, Jim Paice slammed another couple of nails into our cattle's hooves - courtesy of his puppet-masters in the European Union.

Both Farmers Guardian and
Farmers Weekly report that farmers with overdue tests which reveal reactors, will be penalised through reduced tabular value compensation.
"Farmers who have overdue TB tests will receive reduced compensation if they have cattle slaughtered as a result of the disease".

That sounds pretty fair - until you realise that dear old SAM, that all singing, all dancing new computer is having hiccoughs with his paperwork. And some farmers are not receiving their timed window for testing at all. And that most definitely is very unfair.

The second change is to cattle attending shows or moving within a 28 day window, and is described by FG thus:
"Cattle which have had TB tests in the past 30 days, and those which have shared accommodation with other cattle at shows, will no longer be exempt from pre-movement tests."

And then speaking about linked holdings and other things giving the European Union FVO indigestion - and there are many - this sanguine comment from Defra's chief vet, Nigel Gibbens:
"At the moment we have a history of being behind the disease."
You mean you can't test and kill our cattle quickly enough? Farms enduring six 60 day Short Interval tests in one year is insufficient? Shame on you. And slaughtering even more cattle, preventing restocking and cutting the knees from Approved beef finishing units, while letting the source of up to 90 per cent of TB breakdowns in hotspot areas run free, helps how?

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

We covered this crazy one sided policy, as it had been operated by Paice and Gibben's predecessors, in this posting.
But if he is to be forgiven for not knowing his Ministry's history on TB control, perhaps Jim should read his parliamentary predecessor's Parliamentary Questions. And then revisit his own NFU speech with an adjusted time scale - and budget. Owen Paterson MP asked for the result of the just 6-8 months badger clearance at Thornbury. The answer:
"No confirmed cases of tuberculosis in cattle in the area were disclosed by the tuberculin test the the ten year period following the cessation of gassing" [150573]
So not 20 years of buggering about trying to cull out infected groups in ones and twos, very occasionally? And why should there have been this astonishingly quick result, we asked? Anything else done? Biosecurity? Extra cattle measures? Pre movement testing? No cattle movements at all? Nope. The answer:
" The fundamental difference between the Thornbury area and other areas [] where bovine tuberculosis was a problem, was the systematic removal of badgers from the Thornbury area. No other species was similarly removed. No other contemporaneous change was identified that could have accounted for the reduction in TB incidence within the area" [157949]

But his masters have spoken, as they also speak on wildlife control - but are you listening Mr. Paice or are your ears tight shut? Tightening up cattle controls will only work if wildlife reservoirs are addressed simultaneously, as our masters in the EU observed in this DG SANCO paper.

In 2009, the UK received 10 million euros for TB 'control' by which Defra meant testing and slaughtering more cattle. This week, Paice dropped this little gem into his NFU speech. He said :
... the European Commission was ‘minded’ to reject the Government’s annual TB Eradication plan, which would result in it withholding €30 million (£25.4m) of EU funding for TB controls. “That would have been pretty disastrous,” he said.
One could say it was pretty disastrous to operate a one sided policy which hoovered up such increasing sums of cash which offer no benefit to taxpayers, farmers or sick badgers, at a time of global austerity. But let that pass. 'We're all in this together' we're told. But that is not quite true. Paice also hinted of a 'share my pain' package for livestock farmers. Nice one.

We have said it before, and will continue to say that current cattle controls are more than adequate (annual testing and double fenced boundaries), provided the maintenance hosts of tuberculosis are removed.

And if these reservoirs are not tackled simultaneously, then no amount of cattle testing, isolation measures or culling will work to reduce the environmental contamination which is fuelling the scourge known as 'bovine'TB.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

That EU elephant again

Slowly but surely the UK system of TB testing and cattle controls (if not wildlife control) is coming from that elephant in the room - the EU. We reported a year ago how many herds would need two tests before herd movement restrictions could be lifted. And that situation has now caught up with the Treasury bean-counters. Coupled with an insidious rise in incidence, purely anecdotal and unable to be officially tracked after August due to the inability of Defra's new toy to add up, it seems that the costs of testing for bTB is causing not a little indigestion.

We referred to the February 1st. EFRA committee report in the previous posting on the SAM computer problems, but after discussing closing some AHVLA regional investigation centres, much of its content centred around TB testing and how much veterinary practices were paid for this. It was revealed that although an agreement 'memorandum' signed by both the Ministry and the veterinary profession was in place, Defra now find that they need to alter the basis for this. Although they seemed more than a little reluctant to say why.

The gist of the committee's dialogue centred around a 4/5 year 'discussion' with the main veterinary organisations and their contractual obligations for the work of testing our cattle. Chief executive of Defra, Catherine Brown explained that she had been meeting the BVA very regularly.
"In fact, for a period of time I was meeting with them every month for discussions about how we could move on from a very unsatisfactory situation with a memorandum of agreement that was signed with them and MAFF 15 years previously, which did not have any quality standards in it. They were unhappy because they thought that they should have been being paid more. I was unhappy because I thought that we could not demonstrate we were getting value for money. "
... and then there was that elephant - the word 'illegal' in much the same sentence as 'competition'. Ms. Brown explained that she had talked to the BVA 'intensely over a long period of time':
We were unable to come up with a mutually agreeable solution, and it turns out that it is probably just as well. It would have been illegal, because we are spending so much money and you have to offer the opportunity for competition for more than £113,000 of Government expenditure. We are spending about £20 million a year across the country on TB testing.

(And with the 2011 EU regs requiring double the amount of testing now kicking in, plus increased incidence, that figure can only increase no matter how much Government tweaks it in the short term - ed.)

Thus a rigmarole of jargon spattered dialogue follows as Ms. Brown explains that tendering for the testing of our cattle must comply with 'quality standards', have 'delivery partners', comply with 'legal advice', be 'anti-competitive', not 'against European rules' (she did say the word - once) and following Minister Jim Paice's point that 'legal advice was the trigger'. Ms. Brown replied ;
"The legal advice was important. It was two things: it was the legal advice, and also we were not making a great deal of progress. For example, they [the vets] felt that they were underpaid; we had been paying them inflation raises for many years. They felt that they would like to get paid more. I felt that I would like them to make some efficiency savings and pay them less,... "

Devon MP Neil Parrish pointed out that he would like to explore this 'tendering process' and asked how small veterinary practises could compete on a 'tendering' basis:
"What they are worried about is the fact that we are going to get a meat hygiene-type system, where we are going to have one or two companies bidding for the whole country, and vets from all over the world coming in, and there is no personal relationship whatsoever between the farmers and those vets coming in to do the testing.
Jim Paice then blustered waded in with the prophetic observation that;
... having lived through the development of the Meat Hygiene Service, to which you referred, that I have no intention of replicating that experience, I assure you.
That would be replicating this particular 'experience' then would it? And thus we can ignore all the European tweaks previously referred to? No we cannot.

As Ms. Brown pointed in answer to a question from George Eustice:
It is not mainly about saving money; it is mainly about being able to demonstrate some kind of basis for the price that we are paying. [] But it is not actually primarily about saving money.
. Useless Eustice pressed his point again, all the while tiptoeing around that elephant.
" I am intrigued by this idea that you have to negotiate with the BVA. It is almost as if they are a trade union; it is like having a discussion with tube drivers or something. Why are you in that position? If you are paying too much, why can you not just top-slice the fee and, if you have poor performers, stop using them as suppliers? Surely individual practices would not be being paid more than the £113,000 threshold in total, or are they ?"
Although Useless Eustice forgot to mention it, £113,000 p.a is the current European Union threshold for procurement tendering and Ms. Brown confirmed that some practises did indeed receive in excess of that figure. So why not side step them, suggested Useless Eustice?
"I am just curious as to why you subjected yourself to this ludicrous EU procurement process when maybe you could have just side-stepped the BVA and dealt with the issue directly?"

Because she can't?
Procurement is an EU competence which cannot be side stepped. Just like Mr. Paice's MHS 'experience' which he is minded not to repeat. But that option has been signed away, Mr. Useless. Had you missed it in various Treaties?

Ms. Brown replied:
" I made every possible attempt to check that we definitely had to go through the procurement process, and we definitely do. [] The legal advice could not be clearer: we do not have a choice on tendering."
So it would appear that courtesy of the EU, the LVI vets are for the high jump as well as TB restricted farms.

By restricting TB restocking options considerably and effectively cutting the legs from potential buyers into approved units, the EU have left hundreds of England's TB restricted farms with little income and no outlet for their surplus stock at all. And with their TB testing potentially to be carried out by foreign vets. Excellent.

But back to that elephant. It does occasionally have something to say which makes sense. We covered one such trumpet in this posting quoting DG SANCO on the thorny problem of wildlife reservoirs of bTB.
The elimination or reduction of the risk posed by an infected wildlife reservoir enables the other measures contained in the programme to yield the expected results, whereas the persistence of TB in these wildlife populations impedes the effective elimination of the disease.
And as the posting below, which covers the 'immediate effect' ban of movements of some TB restricted stock shows, the elusive European beast can move swiftly when it suits. On the procurement directive and the cats cradle the BVA have made for themselves on testing charges we await developments with interest, but on the DG SANCO recommendations - don't hold your breath.

That particular elephant's trunk is in a definite knot.

Friday, February 10, 2012

EU clamp down

Following an audit last autumn our lords and masters in the European Union are less than happy with AHVLA's licensing of cattle movements onto restricted farms.

This is the news release which announced the changes.
Following a recent audit by the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office (FVO), who are responsible for ensuring that Community legislation on food safety and animal health and welfare is properly implemented and enforced, the decision has been taken to end this arrangement with immediate effect as it fails to comply with the requirements of EU legislation for TB eradication.
Briefly, as we understand it, following a new confirmed breakdown, no movements on can take place until the removal of the reactor(s) and completion of a 60 day test. Should that test still reveal problems, then licensing may be applied for, but cattle coming onto the holding must be isolated.

There is more on the AQUs (approved quarantine units for young stock) and on beef finishing units, which we will add as we get solid info. At present it appears that the former may go altogether and the latter be restricted from buying further stock should a reactor be revealed either at testing or through abattoir surveillance. And that seriously limits outlets for stock from TB restricted farms.

Farmers Guardian has more points on this story, on this link.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

SAM chaos - it " should never have happened"

Speaking in oral evidence to the EFRA committee on 1st February, SAM, Defra's new, all singing but not dancing, computer system gets a mention in the last few minutes of the video.

More of that session in a separate posting. But to save you ploughing through over an hour of yawning and banter important information which affects every livestock keeper, Farmers Guardian reports the highlights.

Asked by Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee chairman Anne McIntosh if she anticipated the problems would be resolved and when, Catherine Brown (Defra Chief Executive) said:
“They are not resolved yet. We are in the process of resolving them. We should have resolved them already. It is extremely urgent to resolve the problems.”
Errr yes. But to do that, first one must accept that there is a problem. And reading the jargon spattered blumph dropping through farmer's letterboxes about these computer problems, (problems of which farmers are on the receiving end) over the last months, one could be forgiven for thinking that such problems were 'minor' - if they existed at all.

Ms. Brown went on to say that AHVLA had put measures in place to mitigate the impacts of the problems on the ground and had ‘put in fixes’ to the system over the past two weeks. There is another batch of fixes going in on 2 February; there is another going in on the 9th.
"We are continuing to fix it as fast as we possibly can." she said.
(We understand there have been several hundred fixes to date - they are ongoing - ed)
Devon Conservative MP Neil Parish described huge problems faced by his constituents, including getting licences to move cattle to slaughter etc. He asked:
“Bluntly, why is it that, in the 21st century, the Government put in a system that they pay good money for and it does not damn well work?”
Ms Brown acknowledged that it ‘should not happen’.
“We have a lot of administrative staff doing things that we should not need to be doing if all those minor things were not wrong with the system. It is not a minor problem overall; it is a significant problem, and it is achieving our absolutely top attention, but it is not like one cataclysmic or hugely insoluble problem with the system that might mean it is never going to work. It is a succession of small things,” she said.
And that most revealing description of this AHVLA chaos is a far cry from the sanguine and anodyne load of tosh delivered to every livestock keeper last week which we reported in this posting and which was described here.

Apart from the glitches, fixes and other problems, we understand that SAM has a major flaw which could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as 'small'. And that relates to its data input. Once on screen, data cannot be changed without losing all the input. This is causing much extra input time if TB test data is to be recorded correctly. But worse than that, we have been told that once SAM's 'Submit' button is pressed, data cannot be retrieved for amendment. SAM has swallowed it and will not regurgitate for any corrections.

Which could explain why cattle culled in the 2001 FMD carnage are still appearing on some farmer's testing instructions - like SAM, they refuse to die.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Crisis? Wot crisis?

Last week, all livestock keepers in SW England received a letter, explaining new changes and "why they are necessary". Now 'change' - if not undertaken for the sake of it - usually implies improvement, but with Government in general and its computer technology in particular, that is rarely the case.

We given you several glimpses of the new SAM computer's chaos in previous postings. The present version of SAM it seems, can neither add up, nor cope with anything other than 100 percent accurate data. One mistake and there is no 'delete' button. The whole lot must be scratched and operatives start again from the beginning. Add to this toxic mix, AHVLA experienced admin staff received their marching orders just as SAM was launched, and were replaced by agency part timers with no knowledge of 14 digit eartag numbers or the 1mm difference in testing results which can mean life or death.

This recipe has given England's 'livestock keepers' severe indigestion, with some farmers receiving bundles of SAM generated paperwork, most inaccurate and many repeated - while others have received nothing at all.

But back to this anodyne and understated letter which explains that SAM will be the all singing, all dancing system which "improves the way we manage TB testing and other disease controls."
"SAM will enable us to do this by automating more of our processes, allowing us to to reduce the number of administrative staff we employ, saving the tax payer over £2 million per annum."
the letter continues:
"SAM, which will replace increasingly out-of-date and expensive to maintain computer systems, can also be used by private veterinary practices, who do the majority of on-farm testing, enabling better and quicker communication between us."
Sounds good? The reality is that vets are still unable to use SAM, that AHVLA's original Help Line number connected with a London solicitor's office and that at present, SAM is losing data, losing reactors, losing herds under restriction, losing historic test data and can't add up.

Our letter ended by dumbing down these many and serious glitches and an apology if 'you have experienced issues with the level of our customer service, for example by incorrect or duplicated correspondence'. Somewhat of an understatement, we feel.

But this week, Farmers Guardian reports that it has received sight of an internal letter about dear old SAM, and the terminology in this document is substantially different from our dumbed down sheet. On that 'time saving veterinary input', the paper reports:

AHVLA staff have therefore been forced to input test result data sent in by private vets, a time consuming process exacerbated by a glitch in the system preventing user errors from being corrected. This is often causing the ‘whole action’ to be cancelled, requiring the information to be manually inputted.

This has caused serious delays in processing test charts, forcing AHVLA to bring in temporary staff to reduce the backlog.

The knock-on effects have included, in AHVLA’s words, ‘confusing and incorrect’ paperwork for farmers, creating uncertainty over the timing and results of tests and nature of disease restrictions. There have also been delays in the collection of reactors from farms and the issuing of calf export health certificates, while uncertainty over the accuracy of data has forced Defra to postpone the publication of national TB statistics.
and of future data? AHVLA say they do not know when the problems with SAM will be ironed out, or whether more will surface.
... the agency’s chief operating officer Nina Purcell gives a fuller account of the situation, describing the roll out of the system as a ‘crisis’ and admitting that a number of ‘outstanding defects’ remain.

She reveals that ‘key fixes’ to Release 6 are due to be implemented in February by AHVLA and its IT contractor IBM. But she acknowledges the agency does ‘not yet know’ how long it will take to resolve the key issue of the link up between the SAM system and private vets.
So a review of the roll out has been commissioned. This will look at:
' how it [SAM] is operating and whether we are on track to meet the objectives of the original business case’
This is due to report at the end of February.

'Business case'?? 'Managing and controlling TB in your herds'?? ' Objectives' ?? And this describes a system which AHVLA describe internally as in 'Crisis', and which they have no idea when or if it can be fixed??

That sort of civil service-speke is guaranteed to enrage the most mild of 'livestock keepers', on the receiving end of such anodyne platitudes and downright lies from his so-called 'Service provider'. And referring to farmers tied down with TB restriction as 'customers' will enrage even further. The word 'customer' implies a choice of provider - and we have none. We also no longer have contact with a local name in a local office for advice on TB .... and now we have SAM.