To be published as HC 1805-ii

House of COMMONS



Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

The rationalisation of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA)

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Catherine Brown, RT HON James Paice MP and Nigel Gibbens

Evidence heard in Public Questions 111 - 171



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 1 February 2012

Members present:

Miss Anne McIntosh (Chair)

Thomas Docherty

Richard Drax

George Eustice

Mrs Mary Glindon

Iain McKenzie

Neil Parish

Ms Margaret Ritchie

Dan Rogerson


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon James Paice MP, Minister of State, Defra, Nigel Gibbens, Chief Veterinary Officer, Defra and Catherine Brown, Chief Executive, Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), gave evidence.

Q111 Chair: Minister-Jim-welcome and thank you very much indeed for joining us this afternoon. For the record, would you like to introduce yourself and your team?

James Paice: Yes, I am Jim Paice, Minister of State for agriculture and food. On my left is Catherine Brown, who is the Chief Executive of AHVLA, and on my right is Nigel Gibbens, Defra’s chief vet.

Q112 Chair: Thank you very much indeed. We are looking at the rationalisation proposed for the AHVLA. To begin with, Minister, what consultation did you undertake in relation to the decisions?

James Paice: Can I be clear that we are talking specifically about testing laboratories, not the wider AHVLA, because there is no rationalisation as such?

Chair: Yes.

James Paice: I am going to ask Catherine Brown, because she obviously led-

Q113 Chair: No, I am asking you, as Minister, if you would-

James Paice: No, I am sorry; at that level the decisions are taken by the Chief Executive, and she organised the consultations and brought the recommendations to Ministers. Would you like to go through the process, which I know was considerable?

Catherine Brown: Clearly, the question about whether lab testing can be split from post-mortems has a major technical component at heart. We consulted scientific experts and we considered international models. We also involved one of our own experienced veterinary investigation officers from our Truro office in establishing the principle that lab testing could, indeed, safely be split from post-mortems while retaining a high-quality service. The decisions about which lab specifically we should retain services in and where we should rationalise were about sustaining the capability of the national network in a way that reduced cost as much as we could.

The management team within laboratory services made proposals, and those were based on the criteria that I think you have in the supplementary table we gave you earlier this week. The executive, led by me, reviewed those proposals. We took the decision on 2 August. On 16 August we started working with our trade unions. We informed the Minister of our intentions on 23 August. Of course, it was very important that directly affected staff who were at risk of losing their jobs heard first, so on 1 September we had facetoface discussions with all of them. That day-on 1 September-we also communicated with the BVA and talked to them about our particular proposals. Then, of course, we were into the consultation process with staff, which involved lots of follow-up visits.

We have also talked to other stakeholders, private vets and our VIOs more widely, who, although not directly affected, do have views and are users, effectively, of the laboratory service. We have also talked to them extensively since then. By working with them and our specific lab experts, we have come up with various improvements about how we are going to be able to take it forward. That is the process that we have been through.

James Paice: If I may say so, Miss McIntosh, it is important to emphasise that these decisions are a matter for the agency and the Chief Executive of the agency. Ministers do not make these decisions. As Catherine said, she came forward to me with what they were proposing to do; I was able to, and did, challenge them on some aspects, in particular some individual closures, particularly given the fact that both the Welsh ones were listed, but the decision rests with her as Chief Executive. It is not a ministerial decision. I am not in any way distancing myself from it, but I think you need to understand the decision-making process.

Q114 Chair: Was the consultation done in terms of decoupling, which does not actually appear in the report, or on de-duplication of testing?

James Paice: What do you mean by de-duplication?

Chair: The report itself does not specify which tests should be retained on the post-mortem side, and acknowledges that further work is required to establish which tests can be done remotely. Was that further work undertaken before the decisions were finally taken by you?

Catherine Brown: It is a twostage process. At the beginning of September, we announced that in general this was the way we wanted to go forward, and these were the sites and the kind of categories of tests that we were going to rationalise and keep. Then, of course, you are into being able to talk about all of the detail, so we had some opening thoughts on which tests were most important to keep locally. As we have talked over the last few months, we have slightly adjusted around the edges of some of those tests. People have said, "Well, actually, that one will work well at a distance, but this one is important to keep local." At the beginning of September we put out there our proposals, as worked up as they were, to then enable people to engage in more detail with the specifics of what should be where. We have been working on that ever since.

Q115 Chair: We heard evidence yesterday that prior to this consultation there was a very good relationship between the Department, the agency and the veterinary industry, but in fact there was no consultation with the industry or with the BVA specialist species divisions in advance of these changes. Was it a specific policy decision you took not to consult them?

Catherine Brown: As I say, we took a view that it was right for us to start the consultation on the specific things we were going to do by making sure that directly affected staff knew about it. I had met and spoken with the BVA about our financial situation and about the kinds of things that we were looking at, and certainly the possibility of lab rationalisation was being discussed widely before the formation of this agency. It was always one of the things that might have had to happen as part of meeting the financial targets for the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, even before the merger. There is always a moment in a consultation when you move from the broad situational discussion into what you are specifically going to do, and I suppose that happened on 1 September.

James Paice: Am I right in thinking, though, that the BVA were involved in the earlier decisions about separating post-mortems from laboratories? When you carried out that earlier work, were they aware of it?

Catherine Brown: They knew that we were doing the ASSP review, which is the surveillance review. They were not on the review body, but the people on the review body were largely vets and scientists.

Q116 Chair: Why were they not on the review body? Why did you take a conscious decision not to put them on the review body? It would have been easier to sell the proposals to them afterwards if they had been on the review body; why did you exclude them?

Catherine Brown: As I said at the beginning, we think that to get to a base set of proposals around lab testing-not around surveillance-the place to start is with experts in lab testing. Having got all your expert evidence and best proposals on what is likely to work best, one then engages widely with people who will have a view as users of what is going to work and not work for them. When it comes to reviewing surveillance, for example, which we are looking at now-that is about post-mortems and wider issues-we have involved the BVA. There are BVA nominees on the advisory group, precisely because that is not all about technically being able to do things right; it is about the interface with the private vets.

Q117 Chair: Now we are in a situation where private vets and farmers in Yorkshire, as a result of what you are proposing, will have to post noncarcass submissions to Bury St Edmunds, rather than submitting them to the local lab. The story we are hearing is that there is a danger that some of those samples will deteriorate and decay. I do not know which one of you would like to answer this, but what the Committee is trying to establish is that these changes taking place will not jeopardise animal health going forward, and that the bottom line is not just a question of saving money. We all understand that whichever Government is in place, money has to be saved, but it would appear from the evidence we have heard that there are now underlying animal health concerns; we need to establish whether that is so. Would you just like to comment on that aspect?

Catherine Brown: Yes.

James Paice: Before you do, Catherine, perhaps I should make a couple of points as I see them. There are two separate issues here. One is the fundamental decision, which Catherine described as being completed earlier in the year, that you can separate the post-mortem service from the laboratory service. Indeed, that has been operating in many parts of the country very successfully for some considerable time. You referred to the Yorkshire situation, but of course anybody who was more than an hour or so, I guess, from Thirsk would have posted the samples anyway, rather than necessarily running-you shake your head, but actually it is true.

Q118 Chair: That is not the evidence we heard yesterday. We heard that the samples are coming from Barnard Castle.

James Paice: The reality, Miss McIntosh, is that in very large parts of the country, farms and veterinary practices are many, many miles from the nearest centre. Therefore, the concept of postage has already been wellestablished and is operating, and there is no evidence at all-and Catherine will support this-of deterioration in samples. If there had been, they would not have moved to the stage of then considering whether, on the back of that, they could close some further laboratories, because clearly it would not have been professionally right to go down that road if there was evidence that samples were deteriorating.

Catherine Brown: Shall I clarify a few bits? 50% of the tests that we do for private veterinarians now come through the post. As you say, they will just post them somewhere different, so there will not be any change in that. Some of those are far from centres, and some of them are local, but 50% of all our tests for private veterinarians come through the post already.

Q119 Chair: Not in relation to pigs, I fear.

Catherine Brown: We can check the specific pig data.

Q120 Chair: I think the Committee would be very keen to have written evidence of what you based your decision on, in view of what the Minister has just said: where lab services are not colocated with post-mortem facilities, what distance is involved and what animals are involved?

Catherine Brown: I think that would be good. Certainly, as we start to look at surveillance more widely, this becomes very important as we think about how we meet the surveillance needs, rather than the testing needs, which are effectively largely geographically independent, unlike a lot of surveillance.

Q121 Chair: If you could undertake to write. How are you going to ensure that specialist expertise is retained within the AHVLA?

Catherine Brown: That is obviously absolutely critical. Here, one of the things that are very difficult to understand is that obviously we have fantastic staff across all our sites, who have a high level of experience and a very good level of competence in a wide range of things. There is a difference between the excellent generalist service that we try to deliver through all the places where we have laboratories at the moment, and specific expertise that is not replicated elsewhere in the laboratory network. That is why we are looking for a national network that retains all of those individual sorts of expertise. We have chosen the labs and the teams that we rationalise specifically partly on the basis of those specific areas of expertise that cannot be replicated elsewhere; that is how, fundamentally.

There are one or two small cases of specific expertise, notably cetacean bacteriology, which is a person based in Truro. Also, there is a specialist parasitologist based in Aberystwyth. We are working with them to think about how we can redeploy them into the national network. Apart from that, the teams where we are looking to rationalise are either very good generalists or have particular areas where they have done more work that is replicated somewhere else.

Q122 Chair: If you look at the 14 people in my constituency who will be moved, the obvious place for them to go is Newcastle, but we are told that recruitment at Newcastle has been frozen. I just cannot physically see where these 14 people who will be issued with their notices are going to be sent so that we do not lose their expertise.

Catherine Brown: Obviously, we are not going to make £2.5 million in savings by redeploying everybody. What I am saying is that, unfortunately, we are not going to be able to redeploy everybody, and we are going to lose staff numbers. Although the staff we are losing are excellent, very hard-working people with a great deal of experience, they do not represent pieces of expertise that we do not have access to across the remaining network. Newcastle may be relevant to some staff in Thirsk, but it is not where the tests from Thirsk will go. As you said earlier, 80% of the tests from Thirsk will go to Bury St Edmunds and 15% will go to Lasswade. I think 1% will go to Newcastle, because they specialise in a particular sort of virus test that applies.

Q123 Chair: So we have established that we are going to lose the expertise of those 14 people currently based at Thirsk?

Catherine Brown: We are potentially going to. We are looking at as many redeployment opportunities as we can and, in fact, we have created a special scheme to retrain laboratory staff who want to retrain, and have the capability to retrain, to do fieldwork. Certainly several of the staff from Thirsk particularly have expressed an interest in that and have been accepted. Some of them will be being retrained for that. We will work with them to find any redeployment opportunity that is going to suit them, but a certain number of them will already have expressed a desire to take voluntary exit on this basis, so we will lose their contribution.

Q124 Chair: Are you confident that the specialist staff at Truro and Aberystwyth will transfer to other sites, or will you lose their expertise as well?

Catherine Brown: A really important thing when we think about lab services-and it will also be one of the factors that we think about when we think about the surveillance questions-is the sustainability of these tiny centres. I worry at the moment that if something happened to our marine bacteriologist, we would have very little back-up and very little of anybody else being exposed to those ideas. Yes, I am optimistic that we will retain those two key individuals, and I also believe that over time having that person based and practising from Carmarthen in a community of bacteriologists will be better than having them split out all on their own, far away from others.

Q125 Chair: They might seem tiny to you, but they shift an awful lot of carcasses and samples in the space of one year. The National Pig Association expressed their concern that there will be an immediate and considerable impact on the service provided to pig producers across the country as one laboratory struggles to cope with the diagnostic needs from the whole pig industry.

Catherine Brown: Sorry, I was not referring at all to Thirsk; I was referring to Aberystwyth and Truro, both of which are very much smaller. Thirsk is a middlesize centre for us.

Q126 George Eustice: I wanted to pick up on the point about Polwhele, because we have had quite a few representations about the cetaceans. When you made the decisions about which labs to keep, how much priority did you put on the existence of that specialist knowledge in individual cases?

Catherine Brown: It is one of the main features. You can see from the table we gave you that we looked at size, because that drives efficiency. We looked at physical facilities, and particularly the existence of containment laboratories to give us resilience for our contained work. We also looked at nonreplicable specialisms. When it comes to the nonreplicable specialisms, there is something about scale and strategic importance. We have placed a lot of importance on it, and I believe that we can protect the marine specialism that we have at Truro, which in the last analysis involves us doing only 20-ish post-mortems a year on cetaceans and seals. I think we can protect it with what we are doing, but we might have taken a different view. With gamma interferon tests and a big volume of TB-related expertise, we might have had to take a different view. It has been one of the things that has been important, but it has depended a bit on the scale of the specialism and its importance.

Q127 George Eustice: You said just now that there is one specialist on cetaceans and seals; is that right?

Catherine Brown: There is a VIO who does most of those post-mortems, and there is a bacteriologist who has worked very closely with him, and they have been able to do the post-mortems together. As well as the post-mortems, which we will not have any difficulty doing, they have also done some international research things together. That is not actually funded by any of our customers; it is just something that they have had the capacity to do. It has been a very nice, multidisciplinary microcosm in Truro.

In the context of having to make £8 million of savings every year for four years, it is the sort of thing that comes under a bit more pressure than maybe it has in the past, but we are going to try to protect it, at least for the next year or so, so that people can work out whether they want to fund it and how we might be able to fund it.

Q128 George Eustice: Do you mean to protect it at Truro?

Catherine Brown: We have always talked about trying to redeploy. The VIO and the post-mortem facility will still be there, pending whatever the outcome of our thinking on surveillance is. There will be some benefits to that bacteriologist being located in Starcross, but we are going to explore the possibility of him going back and participating in the lovely multidisciplinary post-mortems at Truro for a while, and taking the samples back. We will still be able to make the large majority of the savings, but we will give a window of opportunity to explore what we are doing.

Q129 George Eustice: Where would those savings come from if you are not losing any staff specifically, and you are just moving one person from Truro to Starcross?

Catherine Brown: We will not fill a vacancy in Starcross that we would otherwise have had to fill. You have a certain number of people you need to deliver an amount of throughput. That is how, over time, if we move a few people around we will still be able to make the savings.

Q130 George Eustice: You would still envisage doing some of this work at Polwhele?

Catherine Brown: All the way through, we have said that there is no reason at the moment, as a result of the lab rationalisation, to change the way we do post-mortems at Polwhele. Dolphin and seal stuff is not affected at the moment. When we look at surveillance and the outcome of the surveillance group, we will have to think about the best place to have post-mortem rooms, and that will all come in to be thought about and discussed, but right now, it is not affected by what we are doing.

Q131 George Eustice: One of the concerns raised by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust Marine Strandings Network was the idea that there is also a human health hazard-the risk of brucellosis, for instance, on dolphins that have been washed up. Do you think that will be compromised in any way by the changes you are proposing, or do you think it makes no difference?

Catherine Brown: No. As they pick up carcasses and move them around, obviously it is very important that they are mindful of the health risks of that, and I understand, therefore, that they are very interested when we find something that says, "There’s a strain of this," but in actual fact you never know that until after you have picked up the carcass and moved it around. You must always proceed knowing that there is a risk of a zoonosis, and that has not changed at all. We will still be able to give them details of the kind of zoonotic issues that we identify; they must still proceed with great caution and act as though every carcass may have an infection, which they would never know of in advance of picking it up.

Q132 George Eustice: I have just one final thing on Truro specifically. The BVA said something quite interesting in their evidence yesterday, which was that under the last Government, there was a rationalisation plan in which services at Truro were downgraded into a branch, but it did not work, and they subsequently had to re-establish it as a key centre. Did you factor in the experience of the last time this was done?

Catherine Brown: I knew about it, because when I went to Polwhele they showed me all the leaflets and stickers from last time.

George Eustice: Kept just in case.

Catherine Brown: I was aware of the issue. I guess that the economic situation, the targets that we face and our ability to make things happen, and also the technical ability still to provide a good service from a distance, have all moved on significantly. I am optimistic that it will work.

Q133 George Eustice: What was the key cause of the breakdown last time they tried this?

Catherine Brown: I am afraid I do not know; it was 20 years ago. I think it was resistance to change in the local community and our staff.

Q134 Neil Parish: Good afternoon. I want to question the logic. I can understand you wanting and needing to make savings, but what I am trying to get to grips with is this: however controversial it is to close down a centre, if you completely close it down you are going to save that total amount of money. When you start taking away laboratory services from these centres and leave the post-mortem services, surely all that will happen is that they will run down and down, and then you will close the post-mortem service. The BVA and the BCVA have expressed concerns that the sites that only conduct post-mortems will become unviable and will eventually be closed. I know, Minister, from the evidence you gave to the Welsh Affairs Committee that you were very keen to have those facilities available where there was a big livestock area. I do not quite see the logic. Either you are concentrating the services in a given spot or you are not, and I just do not quite see where these savings are going to be made. It is a bit like Marks & Spencer when they run down lines in a town, and eventually the shop becomes unviable and they close it; I rather fear this is where we are going with this.

James Paice: Perhaps I should make the first response, and Catherine can come in with some detail. She has referred a couple of times this afternoon to the whole issue of surveillance. The Agency is embarking on a review of the whole area of surveillance. This is not designed purely as a moneysaving exercise; it is also designed to get the best disease surveillance we have. Post-mortem, of course, is an essential part, but not by any means the only part, of disease surveillance. Part of the reasoning behind this is that the world of agriculture is changing, particularly in the veterinary sector, and we are moving away from the single-vet practices to multivet, highly sophisticated, very professional and very wellequipped practices. Many of these have pretty modern, stateoftheart laboratory facilities, post-mortem and treatment rooms, etc.

It seems wise that we should look at the whole concept of how, in today’s world, in the 21st century, you can set up a disease surveillance system that maximises the use of all the facilities that are available. If that study produces question marks over certain current post-mortem facilities, that is fair comment. It may well happen, but the two are not directly linked. The surveillance issue is about maximising our ability to maintain adequate disease surveillance. I just wonder, before Catherine comes in on the detail, whether Nigel can answer as Chief Vet, because disease surveillance is his responsibility.

Nigel Gibbens: Thank you. I think that is absolutely right. The world has changed. A while ago we were able to get pretty good surveillance by maintaining what was essentially a diagnostic service that related to vets and therefore the farming community. That has changed. The network is still quite big, but it is smaller than it was historically. The point made earlier-that the further you are away from a post-mortem centre, the less likely you are to submit whole carcasses-is very true. That is linked to why some vets are now taking their own samples and sending them in by post, so we see that as a change, and we need to adapt to that.

I would like to touch on the issue of separating where you do the laboratory testing from where the post-mortem is done. The case that has been advanced by some of my colleagues is that it is critically important to do the test very close to where you do the post-mortem because the bugs might be so fragile that they will die in the process. Actually, the vast majority of bugs are not in that category, and the norm is for them to be moved. It is also the case that, for some of the most important things we do, we have to transmit samples to central laboratories, and that is true the world over, so I do not think that case stands up.

I was very interested, when this issue was raised, to know particularly what bugs and what species we were dealing with. There are two that have been specifically named, and that can be dealt with. The issue is to understand the problem you face and then deal with the problem to make sure that the samples can be properly tested. Catherine has been talking about the benefits of consolidating your testing, in terms of efficiency, but we also need to keep our expertise. We need real experts.

We will come back to surveillance-I will not hog the surveillance ground-but it is very important that we, the Government, offer something that only Government can do, and that increasingly sophisticated practices will value. That is real expertise and real, in-depth investigation capability that links through normal benchtype lab testing to serious histology and the sort of virology back-up that will allow you to identify a new disease you have heard about called Schmallenberg, but that is only one example. When you look at it in the round, I think this is where we are going.

Q135 Neil Parish: I do not disagree with you, and I buy into what you say on concentrating services as far as laboratories are concerned, but what is stopping you doing the same as far as post-mortems are concerned?

Catherine Brown: Going to your first point, it is not just about laboratories and post-mortems. One of the benefits of the merger is that it is also about field activities. For example, in Truro we do not think it is sensible to keep the lab services, but we are thinking that we may well move our field services from the middle of Truro town-not a great place to have field services-to Polwhele. We have already found ways of rationalising sites. We will end up with fewer sites and concentrations at fewer sites. It is not essential that they do post-mortems and act as laboratories to remain viable.

Q136 Neil Parish: So there will actually eventually be fewer sites.

Catherine Brown: Yes.

Neil Parish: There may be sites in most of these areas that we talk about, but there may be more than one at the moment. Is that what you are saying?

Catherine Brown: Yes. Certainly, in various places there is more than one. We have already rationalised, for example, in Shrewsbury and Bury St Edmunds. If we are going to save money, we are going to save it either by rationalising sites or by reducing staff numbers, largely.

Neil Parish: That was my original point, so thank you.

Q137 Chair: Before we leave that, could I just ask Nigel Gibbens a question? The study has not actually been completed, I understand.

Nigel Gibbens: Which study?

Chair: The study into bacteria. Forgive the pronunciation, but where are we on the haemophilus parasuis study, and particularly on the brachyspira bacteria as well? Were they included in the study that you say has finished?

Nigel Gibbens: Brachyspira is not one that is particularly a problem, and it is already transported for diagnosis, so we can set that one aside, but the AHVLA have been looking at haemophilus. I think you have heard about a smallscale study that AHVLA has done to see what happens when you transmit samples away and bring them back, which gave mixed results. You seem to get a degradation in some, but in 2% of cases you might even get an improvement. We have to be careful because the numbers in this study were not high, so how much can you rely on them? The issue is recognising that you have a bacteria in that case that presents you with a challenge, and addressing it. Catherine can tell you about what the Agency proposes to do to address that particular challenge relating to pigs and Glässers disease.

My view is that the agency has diagnostic experts; they have scientists across the whole field of animal disease. We also contribute to the international manual on diagnostic testing. The first thing you do is say, "From your knowledge, what is going to present us with a problem?" It is not very much, actually, but it leaves you with some things that you need to do on site-things like impression smears, where you want to look very quickly at what you can get from some pathological material, and some things where you might be able to stain immediately to see a bacterium and get something very quickly. In other cases, you will not lose anything by moving it. There are a few cases where you might, and you need to address those and make the system work, rather than maintain a whole laboratory system to deal with very few samples. Catherine might want to tell you about the latest view from AHVLA on how they deal with that.

Catherine Brown: For some of those things, we are looking at the possibility of mobile incubators, so that you could still take the swab there and then-get it captured straight away-and move it in a mobile incubator. There are lots of things that we are, as Nigel says, looking to try to do. There are things we can do to improve. For example, that study showed that you get better-quality results by using swabs than you do by using tissues, so we will move everybody to using swabs, not tissues. There are a number of things that we can do to improve quality.

Q138 Chair: Could I quickly run two scenarios past you? Where a farmer loses five or six lambs in a 24hour period in North Yorkshire, how are we going to examine the parasites in sufficient time to get him the diagnosis and treatment before he loses any more?

Nigel Gibbens: If we are talking about lambs that might be dying because of parasitic disease, which at this time of year is quite likely to be the case, the twin things are these. If it is late enough in the development, you can see worms, and you can look for worms in a post-mortem; if you have patent worms, you will find them. If you are talking about something like coccidiosis, which is a different disease, you need a microscope; you can do impression smears and you can look for it. That is the quick way, and that can be done post-mortem anyway.

If you are going to have to send samples off for further testing-for example, if we are at the prepatent phase, you can get losses before the worms actually hatch-you are going to have to do more work. You are now talking about looking at the gut lining to see what is going on, and you are looking at histology. That has a delay anyway, and we have to deal with that delay. The question then is how fast you can get that into the system and do the further testing.

One of the other things that AHVLA is able to do, because it is making larger lab units, is move on to weekend working. At the moment, there can be a gap on a Saturday and a Sunday. With the change and with economies of scale, you can avoid that gap, so you can move on more quickly.

Q139 Chair: You bring me neatly to my next question. At the moment, if a sheep carcass is presented at Thirsk on a Friday, they will have the results by Saturday. If that sheep carcass has to go to Bury St Edmunds, presumably the farmer will not get any indication before the Monday.

Catherine Brown: I do not think they can get results on a Saturday at the moment. There is no testing on a Saturday, and there are no VIOs on a Saturday. At the moment, if a post-mortem arrived in Thirsk on Friday afternoon, it would be unusual even for the samples to be taken and start to be processed before Monday morning, whereas now there will be a courier to take the samples at five o’clock on Friday night; they will arrive at Bury St Edmunds at nine o’clock on Saturday morning, and we will be opening the laboratory and processing on Saturday and Sunday. If it is a nextday-results type of test, and as long as the VIO makes the arrangement with the private veterinarian, they will be able to have the result on Saturday, so it should be better, not worse.

Nigel Gibbens: On the premise of your question, the post-mortem facility still remains in the same sites. The thing that we will have to address-and consultation is happening on this-when we look at the whole surveillance model is where you have those facilities so that they are accessible at speed. As I said earlier, we are not necessarily good at that over the whole coverage of where we have large livestock populations.

Chair: I think you will find that Thirsk is possibly getting the results in on the Saturday. I do not want to argue with you, but that is the current situation.

Q140 Richard Drax: I would like to ask a question, if I may, on the Surveillance Advisory Group that has been established. I understand that a review is expected by early March 2012. Would it perhaps not be more sensible to complete the work of the Surveillance Advisory Group before determining the size and scope of the agency’s veterinary services?

Catherine Brown: That is something that we agonised about for a fair bit when we were trying to work out the chunks. We could try to work everything out, because there are a lot of interrelations. There is the interrelationship with the estate base, so it would be quite useful to know about Defra’s estate strategy and ours before we acted. There is the surveillance review, which is not a primarily technical question; it is a question on which we will need to engage with stakeholders for a long time to work out what the right thing to do is. Then there is the laboratory testing. We had to start making material savings next year, and we could make £2.5 million in savings-actually, more, because there will be estate savings as a result of what we have done. If we waited until we knew everything, we would have had to wait for at least another six months, and potentially another year, to be able to make any savings.

We did agonise a lot about whether we should wait and not make any savings, and then do a big bang and try to do everything perfectly, or whether it was sufficiently low risk to do this. As I say, we have the field opportunity as well as the post-mortem issue, so there is a lot of scope. It does not mean that we have to close anything or change any of the post-mortem arrangements as a result of what we have done so far. We took the view that it was sensible to act where we could make savings that did not preclude anything we might want to do later.

Q141 Richard Drax: The savings you made are staff savings, primarily, are they? So the service is still there, but some of the staff are gone?

Catherine Brown: Yes.

Q142 Richard Drax: That has saved you over £2 million.

Catherine Brown: Yes.

Q143 Dan Rogerson: I was keen to explore the issue of samples, but we have done that at some length. There are a couple of issues, though, that came up in evidence we heard yesterday, and in written evidence. I am a Cornish MP, like my colleague, Mr Eustice, so I would like to ask about the particular Brucella that they say was isolated at Polwhele, and then was not when sent off to Weybridge. Can you account for that?

Nigel Gibbens: I should say that I am not a laboratory expert, but I talk to laboratory experts and I am starting to feel like one.

Dan Rogerson: You are in the hot-seat today.

Nigel Gibbens: That was one occasion. There are many reasons why that might happen, and perhaps we cannot tell. The issue-and I would hope the laboratory did this-is to learn from that. Brucella is not an organism that you should lose when you transport, so moving Brucella organisms around is pretty normal practice. It is a notifiable disease, and we will confirm that disease at a central laboratory; that is the way we do business. I do not know about that case in point, but that should not happen with that organism.

Q144 Dan Rogerson: I am obviously not an expert in any way-far less so than you-but just so that I get an understanding, when you are talking about samples being sent in as a matter of course from vets in the field who are practising locally, would that be something where they have not carried out a full post-mortem, and they have just taken a sample of something they were interested in and sent it in, as opposed to a full post-mortem being undertaken for a particular reason? There would be a change, wouldn’t there, as regards post-mortem samples being sent, in terms of a full post-mortem examination, as opposed to the use of post-mortem to mean, "This is a dead animal we are dealing with"?

Catherine Brown: It is a mixture, so some of them will do the post-mortems and send pieces of post-mortem, but what we mean when we say they are sending 50% through the post is it is things other than whole animals.

Q145 Dan Rogerson: Absolutely. I should hope so. I have a question for you, Minister, linked to this. One of the areas of concern that has been raised quite a lot with us as local MPs is that there is a huge voluntary network around this, on the marine strandings work. While I understand that some of it may not have been a core function of what you are doing, from the Defra point of view, with the overall brief of looking at animal disease, the natural environment and these marine issues, are you concerned that changes in the lab support there may mean that there are fewer volunteers who are willing to get involved in this because they feel that the whole thing has been downgraded?

James Paice: I am not going to pretend that I am the world’s expert on volunteer marine work as you describe, but as you have heard, Polwhele remains, and I therefore do not really see any reason why it should reduce volunteer participation. You are keeping a centre in the general location and, as Catherine has said, there is a possibility of moving field staff out there, and personally I am at a loss to know why it should reduce the role of the volunteer in the area.

Q146 Mrs Glindon: The BVA has highlighted the heightened risk of new and emerging animal diseases as a result of climate change. What assurance can you give us that the changes to the AHVLA will not reduce the UK’s ability to detect and respond to those threats?

Nigel Gibbens: This hinges on the fact that the change to where laboratory testing is done is specifically designed not to change our ability to, or the sensitivity with which we can, detect organisms, whether they are existing, known or new. New organisms are interesting; new and emerging diseases might be ones we know about but are not very familiar with-obviously, because they are new-and they tend to end up in a central laboratory, where you have greater skills or possibly expertise than in a regional laboratory. I do not think it makes any difference at all. As we look forward and plan our surveillance model, we do have to maintain contact with farmers, their vets, and people who will tell us when unusual things happen. You heard about Schmallenberg; it is a case in point, because it has only just happened. Our ability to detect that in this country hinged entirely on farmers’ willingness to send in samples, and they were encouraged to do that by their vets. That is key, but that is nothing to do with the change that has already happened and is everything to do with what we are currently consulting on, which is the future model.

Q147 Dan Rogerson: One of the complaints I have had from farmers more recently is that they do not get as much information back, or if they do, they are having to chase and get on the phone. For example, they have a TB reactor, and they are worried to know what the investigation has shown, and want to get information back, but that has not happened. Are you concerned that if we are centralising things more, it will be that much harder for farmers to get information back in a timely fashion?

Catherine Brown: It should not be. One of the things that has emerged very strongly in the discussions since September, in the consultations with farmers and private vets, is the premium they place on having their own VIO at the front end of their relationship with the agency. As that is important to them, we are protecting that as part of the changes. Although results will be generated around the country, the farmer and their vet will still receive them through their own singlepointofcontact VIO. If there are specific cases, then it would be very helpful for you to give them to me, and we can follow them up and try and make sure that we are meeting our quality aspirations. It certainly should not get any worse.

James Paice: I think it is important, assuming I am correct to say this-please correct me if I am wrong-that in the normal course of events the farmer would not have direct contact with the lab. It would be through their vet. If it is the vet feeling that he or she is not being properly informed by the lab, that is one thing, but from the farmer’s perspective, which is what you said, that would be back to their own vet, who would then get the information from the lab.

Q148 Dan Rogerson: Certainly. I will check that. That is very helpful. Connected to that is the whole issue of the relationship that is there: the confidence and the good will. You have mentioned the overall surveillance objectives and so on, and the twoway relationship that is there, because you rely on that support. Are you concerned about that message or that positivity being undermined by this programme of closure?

James Paice: We all have to be realistic; nobody likes change, and perhaps the farming community is as conservative as any, in terms of lack of willingness to face change in this respect. When there is change in a public service, which is what this is, people naturally tend to think the worst, and think that the service will decline. I cannot help that public impression, but as Minister, I would want to assure the industry for which I am responsible that this is not about reducing service at all. This is in some ways about improving service; as you have heard-Catherine described the case of seven-day working-in actual fact it could lead to an improvement of service.

Q149 Dan Rogerson: It could do; we will watch that. Finally, if there is this unease, is it unfortunate that it is happening at the same time as the Department is looking more at costsharing? You are effectively saying, "We want you to pay more", and they are concerned they are going to get less for it.

James Paice: It is unfortunate that it has happened at the same time. Let me just explain a little bit of where we are at overall on the subject. We said right from the outset when we set up the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England-which commenced its duties towards the end of last year, so it is still very much early days-that I wanted them to get a grip of the policy issues surrounding animal health and welfare before they moved on to costsharing issues. I said from the start that it was not just a question of sharing the existing costs, but of actually looking at the cost base, how they arrived at it, and whether there are alternative ways of doing it.

As it happens, I met with the chairman of the board this morning, and they are now beginning to look at budgets; they are looking at wrestling with individual issues, but I am quite clear that we need to distinguish the very real issue of costsharing, to use that phrase, from the issue of ensuring that we do our very best as a public service in delivering animal diagnostics, surveillance, and all the research and other work that is done.

I am not going to hide the fact that the concept of increased industry contribution to those costs is there. Of course it is there, and it is going to become increasingly important. The key thing at the moment, though, is for the Animal Health and Welfare Board to really get a grip of the policies and the way that those costs are derived before we start to move into cost sharing. Yes, cost sharing in one form or another is coming down the road-I cannot deny that-but as to the extent, who it will fall on, and how it will be worked out, that is still some time in the future.

Q150 Chair: Could I just revert to earlier in the session, when we talked about the fact that the vets were on the verge of signing a contract with the Government? Apparently it straddled the previous Government as well. This was the business reform programme; new contractual arrangements were about to be in place. Were those negotiations dropped because of the proposals before us today?

Catherine Brown: Are you thinking of the contract for TB testing now?

Chair: Yes.

Catherine Brown: No, I would not have said there was ever a contract negotiation with the BVA, because there could never have been. I met with 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. We talked intensely over a long period of time about the unsatisfactory nature of the existing arrangements. 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.

I know it was a great shock to the BVA when, after lengthy discussions in which we failed to reach any mutually agreeable way forward, I said, "Well, then I think we will have to tender", but that was in May 2010, I think. It is a bit like when we had to make the announcement on 1 September. When you actually make an announcement, it is always the first time you have made it, and it was a blow to them, but since then, for nearly two years, we have been consulting them intensively-and our OVs, of whom there are a sizeable number, and who are not members of the BVA-about how we best put in place something that is legally correct, gives a fair basis for fees that we can all recognise, and protects quality of delivery. I think there must have been a misunderstanding if they described it thus.

Q151 Iain McKenzie: The BVA and the BCVA told us that the announcement of competitive tendering came to them as a bit of a bombshell, given that they were progressing towards an agreement with the AHVLA. Can you tell us why there was no consultation on this approach?

Catherine Brown: It was me they were talking to, and as I say, we were talking every month, at length. For months we were talking about how the memorandum was unsatisfactory: it did not have appropriate quality standards and it did not offer a basis for payment that they thought was fair. Eventually, I had to say, "We have taken legal advice, and the way forward for this is that we will need to tender." Whatever date we said that on, it would have been the first time we had formally said it. Since then, we have still been working with them intensely to consult around how that might happen. Initially, we thought the only way you could tender was to do a big tender, where big companies come in and you get the one that offers you the cheapest price against a quality specification. However, actually, having spent a lot of time thinking about surveillance, talking to people about surveillance and the relationship we have with private vets, and listening to the concerns expressed by the BVA, other private vets and OVs-

James Paice: And farmers.

Catherine Brown-and farmers, indeed, who like to have their vet do their testing, we have come up with options including what we are calling a delivery partner model. It is actually very difficult for a very small business to contract directly with the Government because of all the bureaucracy around Government tendering. By having a delivery partner, you can offer them the opportunity either to come together into co-operative groups or to work under another company’s umbrella, and to have a single contract with us, and then much lighter-weight subcontracts through that delivery partner with individual businesses. That is something that we have come to, carefully taking account of legal advice, but in consultation with vets and the BVA.

Obviously, there is a bit of a thing; we cannot consult them about the details of how you put the tender together, because that would be anticompetitive and against the European rules, but certainly we have been talking at length, over a good 18 months plus, about what kind of tendering is going to be best and deliver everybody’s shared objectives. We have moved our position on, so they have had an opportunity to contribute, and they have contributed.

James Paice: I think it is important to make the point that what Catherine has been saying to you is not actually necessarily the final definitive position. It is still to go to the Animal Health and Welfare Board for their views before we can make final decisions.

Catherine Brown: Yes, absolutely.

Q152 Iain McKenzie: It seems that you were having discussions with them, so when did that change to a consultation, and why did they not see that change? Why would this come as such a surprise, if you are saying that you were discussing this with them, and then you changed your position to a consultation?

James Paice: The legal advice was the trigger, I presume.

Catherine Brown: 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 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, so we did a study to try and work out whether there was a way we could work it out. There are significant regional variations, so it is much harder and much more profitable to do the work in some parts of the country than in other parts, but we have a single national fee. We did a piece of work together to try and see if there was anything that we could come up with, but we failed to come up with anything that we were going to be able to think between us was a good thing. Then we were taking legal advice, which said, "Anyway, if there is any significant change you want to make to this memorandum of agreement, you will have to go through a competitive process."

Q153 Chair: So you did actually have a memorandum of agreement?

Catherine Brown: Yes, we have a memorandum of agreement with the BVA.

Q154 Chair: And it was at that stage you took legal advice?

Catherine Brown: Yes, as we were failing in this.

James Paice: There has always been a memorandum of agreement, going back eons. That is not new. The question is trying to update it and change the payment rates. That is where the legal advice came in that it would have to be tendered.

Q155 Neil Parish: I just want to talk more about the tendering process. Farmers, as you quite rightly say, Minister, very much like their local vets to do this service and, in a TB area like Devon-virtually the whole of Devon is a hotspot-there are over 100 practices at the moment doing TB testing. How are you going to make it easier for smaller practices to bid for contracts? What they are worried about is the fact that we are going to get a meat hygienetype 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.

Catherine Brown: As the Minister said, we are in the middle of trying to formulate options, which we will then take to the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England to talk about. The delivery partner model is constructed to enable the kind of scenario that you are describing to take place. It frees up the micro-businesses and practices from all the very onerous Government contracting requirements of doing business directly with us through a contractual framework by putting in place a co-operative or an umbrella organisation-a delivery partner. As we have been working on this over the last 18 months and talking to vets all around the country, they have been clearly thinking about it, and some of them have been forming together into groups who can take the role of that delivery partner. Then they can subcontract in a more private-sector, light-touch, manageable way with individual practices.

We think that there may be quality benefits to local practices doing work, so we could potentially specify some of those relevant quality benefits in the specification. That may work out more expensive than the other model you described, which is more about having bigger contracts with single people delivering it. That will be the sort of thing that I am sure the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England-and, ultimately, yourself and others-will consider when we come up with the options.

James Paice: I should add, 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.

Q156 Neil Parish: I appreciate that, Minister. Are you going to take a geographical area, or are you going to take the number of practices and the cattle density? If we compare the county of Sussex, for instance, with the county of Devon, it is not only geographical size that is the issue, but the amount of cattle and the amount of TB. That is what worries us in particular. How are you going to take account of that? I know you cannot help these practices bid, but I think you have to set up the contract in a way where it can be helpful to those local vets that bid.

Catherine Brown: I think that is fine. We are very clear that the geographical size of lots will be secondary to, or different from, the cattle density. We are not envisaging a size.

Q157 Neil Parish: You are not going to go just for counties, for instance?

Catherine Brown: Over the last few months, we have had three big open meetings around the country, and one of the things we have talked about with vets a lot there is: what would be logical? What are the pros and cons of different shapes and sizes of groupings? Those are all things that we will take into account.

Q158 Neil Parish: The point I am making is that there is clearly a huge difference between the size of counties, the amount of cattle, and the amount of veterinary practices. You will take that into consideration?

Catherine Brown: Yes, we will.

Neil Parish: Okay, thank you.

Q159 George Eustice: How much money are you hoping to save by putting this out to tender? It is £21 million now.

Catherine Brown: 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. I do worry a bit. I know there are those who think it is quick, but I feel as though it has been four or five years now that I have not had a very strongly defensible basis for the price that we are paying. But it is not actually primarily about saving money.

Q160 George Eustice: From what you said earlier, it sounded very much as though you switched to a tendering position to try and break what sounded like a bit of a stalemate in negotiations with the BVA. 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 topslice 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?

Catherine Brown: Several of them would be, yes.

Q161 George 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?

Catherine Brown: I made every possible attempt to check that we definitely had to go through the procurement process, and we definitely do. In effect, we probably could have saved ourselves months and months of meetings with the BVA, but we were still trying, and there were things that came out of it that we have been able to take account of. The legal advice could not be clearer: we do not have a choice on tendering. It is about quality and the quality specification, I would say, as much as it is about a defensible price.

James Paice: On the quality issue, without going wider on the TB issue, clearly over the last months we have been trying to make sure that we are doing everything we possibly can across the whole range of measures on TB. I think, realistically, anybody who spends much time out on farms and sees it happening, as I have, sees that there is a range of activities; I do not want to go into detail for obvious reasons, but you realise that you just have to tighten that up. On the work that Catherine did with the BVA, we have recently produced updated guidance. It is not legislative; it is purely guidance, but guidance to all vets doing TB tests about the practices, procedures, etc. That has been done with the support of the BVA, so I would not want to think that the talks were a waste of time; they did produce a great deal of support to improve the quality of TB testing, which is very important.

Q162 Mrs Glindon: I would like to ask Ms Brown a question. When you gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, you said that the role of the private sector in surveillance was something you would be thinking about. Has that role been decided, and if so, could you explain what it is?

Catherine Brown: No, it has not. In terms of the surveillance group, I think what we said at the time was that we had no ideological commitment to it one way or the other. Clearly, what we do not want to do is rule things out and ignore things, so in surveillance, for example, the pig sector and the poultry sector in particular have done lots of very valuable and important work around gathering of data that we would like to share and have as part of the wider surveillance considerations. What we are saying is that all of that should be considered as part of our deliberations around surveillance. It is not just about the things that Government does; it is about a genuine partnership across the private sector and Government.

Q163 Chair: Mr Gibbens, could I just return to something you said that I do not think I have completely understood? I would like to clarify it. You say that you have scientific data to show that, for all the tests that the agency does, sample deterioration after posting is not a problem.

Nigel Gibbens: What I said was, in planning this change, AHVLA had to consider the impact, and the premise of this is that there is not going to be an impact. They have experts in the various tests they conduct, and they could review those tests to look to see whether on known, recorded knowledge there should be a problem with that. In among that is the practice that had already been going on at two of our post-mortem facilities of sending material in anyway, so we had practical experience as well as that technical knowledge. That was what underpinned the change. Coupled with that was a recognition that there were some things we needed to do and maintain, post-mortem side.

In the period since then-the report upon which this was based said, "And there are some areas where we will need to look at the challenges around certain bacteria"-there has been work to look at that, and Catherine described to you a proposal from the agency to be able to start culture immediately, post-mortem side, and then move it using portable incubators. This should solve the problems. There has not been a scientific study; the quick and dirty "Let’s have a look at see what happens if you post some samples away and have them back" was just that, but it was interesting and yielded some useful data. Actually, it is our expert knowledge, which is not just national but based on international norms in manuals of diagnostic procedures for the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Q164 Chair: What was the total cost of administration?

James Paice: Of what?

Chair: The agency at the moment.

James Paice: The whole agency?

Chair: You could write to us with a figure, but I am just interested to know how many managers and administrators you currently have.

James Paice: I think we will have to write to the Committee with that detail. We do not have it with us.

Q165 Chair: If you could write to us, that would be helpful. On the Sam computer system, I understand that you have had a number of problems. Do you anticipate that those problems might be resolved?

Catherine Brown: They are not resolved yet. We are in the process of resolving them.

Q166 Chair: What is your time scale for resolving them?

Catherine Brown: We should have resolved them already, so my time scale is: it is extremely urgent to resolve the problems. In terms of the impacts on the ground, we have managed to put in place things that mitigate the impacts of the problems that we are experiencing with the system on the ground. Our staff are making very great efforts to ensure that remains the case. Meanwhile, we are putting in fixes. 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.

Q167 Neil Parish: On this, many farmers in my area have had huge problems getting licences to move cattle that are going to slaughter and what have you. 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? This is not the first time; it goes on all the time. I am not blaming you personally, but what is the solution and why should this happen?

Catherine Brown: It should not happen; we should have been able to go live in September with it all working properly. There are some things we have done that make it not entirely just another case of us getting stuffed and spending a huge amount of money on something that has not worked. For example, our supplier is on a fixed-price contract, so all the additional costs of fixing are being borne by the supplier, and not by us. That helps a little bit, because it means that at least there is an incentive for them to fix things quickly, whereas of course if we were paying time and motion, there would be an incentive for them to fix it slowly.

Q168 Neil Parish: It does not help the farmers who are trying to get their licence, though, does it?

Catherine Brown: No, although I believe-I will send you an update-that we are on time with licences now in the south-west. You are quite right.

Q169 Iain McKenzie: On the subject of the computers and Sam, you said that the fixes have been in batches, yet we have a comment here from an AHVLA spokesman saying it is "minor issues". It does not sound minor to me, if you are fixing in batches.

Catherine Brown: It is a lot of minor issues, and these are not the only two batches. It is a lot of minor issues that, cumulatively, make it very difficult for people to use it properly and well. 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.

Q170 Chair: I have two last questions, if I may. You did not conduct an impact assessment. Why not?

James Paice: On what?

Chair: For the whole rationalisation programme that you have set out.

Catherine Brown: Are you are thinking of the lab services rationalisation?

Chair: Yes.

Catherine Brown: We asked our legal team for their advice, and we were informed that you do not need to carry out a formal impact assessment for something where you are not transferring costs or increasing charges materially, so we did not need to do an impact assessment. We need, obviously, to be very mindful of any impacts that it has, and manage them, and that is what we are doing.

Q171 Chair: What conclusion have you drawn on resilience after rationalisation? You are reducing labs; what if one of those remaining was out of function through flood or fire? Are you determined that the rationalisation will not damage resilience?

Catherine Brown: Yes, our notifiable disease resilience does not rely on our regional laboratory network; it relies on our capacity and capability at Weybridge. As we are retaining the large category 3 containment laboratories in the national network, we are confident. Last year, there was a flood at Sutton Bonington, and we lost that containment laboratory; we would be able to support that in the network that we are retaining.

Chair: You have been very generous with your time; we thank you, and obviously you will have sight of our conclusions.

Prepared 7th February 2012