To be published as HC 1660-i

House of COMMONS



Welsh Affairs Committee

The Future of AHVLA Services in Wales

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Dr Hazel Wright, Mr Derek Morgan and Mr Stephen James

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 37


1.This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in private and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2. The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Welsh Affairs Committee

on Wednesday 23 November 2011

Members present:

David T. C. Davies (Chair)

Stuart Andrew

Guto Bebb

Geraint Davies

Jonathan Edwards

Jessica Morden


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Dr Hazel Wright, Senior Policy Officer, and Mr Derek Morgan, Chairman of the Hill Farming and Marginal Land Committee, Farmers’ Union of Wales, and Mr Stephen James, Deputy President, National Farmers’ Union of Wales (NFU Cymru), gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Would you briefly introduce yourselves, and then perhaps give us a quick introduction to the issue of these closures?

Mr James: I am Stephen James. I am the deputy president of NFU Cymru. I am a dairy farmer by profession on the Carmarthen-Pembroke border.

Dr Wright: I am Hazel Wright. I am the union senior policy officer for the Farmers’ Union of Wales. I have an interest in disease biology because my PhD is in parasitology.

Mr Morgan: I am Derek Morgan. I am chairman of the Hill Farming and Marginal Land Committee and a hill farmer from mid-Wales.

Q2 Chair: Thank you very much indeed. We are slightly pressed for time as we have Questions to the Welsh Minister later this morning, so may I ask you-I do not mind which of you answers-to give a quick synopsis of the problems that we are faced with?

Mr James: We are talking about the closure of the labs in Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. They talk about keeping the post-mortem part of it, but we understand that all of the lab testing will be moved somewhere central. We question that, particularly as Carmarthen is in a very intense livestock area. If you are post-morteming something, it is best to test it when it is fresh as opposed to it having to be posted elsewhere. That is what we are defending. We expect a service and the service is there now; it is well used by local vets and farmers, and we do not want to lose it.

Q3 Jonathan Edwards: May I ask you to give us a quick idiot’s guide, as it were? If there is an incident on a farm, such as a suspected outbreak of TB or whatever, what is the time scale and the process of how the carcases or samples reach the lab, and when would you, as farmers, know that you had a problem?

Mr James: With something like foot and mouth, which is notifiable, you would have a result within the first 24 hours because it is critical and has to be delivered. A lot of the stuff going through there would be many diseases that were not notifiable, such as leptospirosis and a variety of other diseases-including sheep diseases, which Derek has experience of.

You would have a farm-specific problem, and you would want to find out about it and treat it; you could use an antibiotic or perhaps a vaccine, but the decision would need to be made sooner rather than later. For instance, Derek and I have personal experience of there having been five abortions in 10 days. You think that you have a major problem when you have that many, when a single one in six months is more usual. When you have five in 10 days, you would think there is something drastically wrong here, but you don’t know how to treat it or what to do. We sent one of the foetuses to be tested, and they found that it was caused by a fungus or a mould growing in one of our feed mangers. At least we then knew what to do about it, whereas, if it had been leptospirosis or whatever, we would have needed to vaccinate sooner rather than later. That is the sort of stuff that they are doing for us.

Q4 Jonathan Edwards: I questioned the Minister on this 24-hour issue, and he said that a 24-hour delay would be unacceptable. Is there any way, under the proposals as envisaged, that you reckon they will be able to get the samples post-mortemed and tested in the labs at the other centres and get the results back to you within 24 hours?

Mr James: Obviously you can deliver things from Screwfix overnight, but you would have to have a refrigerated service. If they close these labs, they would have to have some sort of refrigerated delivery service to a central lab. That would be the least that could happen, as this material is best tested fresh.

Q5 Jonathan Edwards: Was the announcement about discontinuing lab services in Carmarthen and Aberystwyth totally unexpected by the unions, or were you consulted beforehand?

Dr Wright: It did not go out to consultation, so we had no input whatsoever. My understanding is that it was thought to be an internal reorganisation and that consultation was not needed. The union would obviously have welcomed consultation because, as far as we understand it, you cannot lose jobs and expect no loss of capacity. Because of the restructuring, Wales will be particularly hard-hit, given that all the testing will be done elsewhere. Yes, we would have welcomed consultation, but, no, there was not one.

Q6 Jonathan Edwards: Are you concerned that no impact assessment was undertaken by the Department or the agency?

Dr Wright: Absolutely, yes. You can report cost savings, and they are arbitrary at the moment, but, if those savings have to be met with an increase in testing elsewhere because of that loss of capacity, you would have to question the value of the cost savings. You obviously would not be expecting that increase in costs; so you have to balance out the two.

Q7 Jonathan Edwards: My last question is to NFU Cymru in particular. In your written evidence, you told us that you had expressed concerns to the executive of the agency and that you subsequently met with representatives of the agency. What reassurances, if any, did you receive from them as a result of that meeting?

Mr James: We wrote to Catherine Brown, and she responded with a letter saying that the rumours in the newspapers at the time were not strictly true. However, going forward, we understand that they want to reduce the labs. Since then, we met Martin Sharples and Simon Hall, the vets in charge at the AHVLA. They gave us examples of what happens in Holland, where there is a central lab and a refrigerated service to collect the material from around the country. Holland would be the size of Wales, I guess, but it is flat and it is easier to get a service, at least a reliable service, which perhaps works better there. In answer to your earlier question, we understand that they report on that day. If they can create a service of that standard and that level, then you can accept that it will perhaps be a better service than we have now. However, we would question whether it would be achievable in the UK; I assume that we would have to have three or four centres to achieve the standards that they have in Holland.

Q8 Guto Bebb: It has been said that consolidating the services would provide a more efficient and expert service to the farming community. Do you agree with that statement?

Mr James: It is difficult. It is one of those things that you are not quite sure of. It is easy to say it, but can they deliver? Given the scale of the UK-I guess we include Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland-if they can provide a service similar to that of the Dutch, then it may become more efficient, but we would question that. We have spoken to the lab in Carmarthen; it will still be doing post-mortems, but it would be sending material to central labs. The question is whether it can keep that stuff fresh enough to sample it properly when it reaches the lab. That is the big question.

Q9 Chair: What about Dr Wright or Mr Morgan? Would you go along with that?

Dr Wright: It depends on whether consolidating services would mean the loss of local expertise. It depends on whether the staff in a centralised service had the expertise that was available at the local centres. In evidence, the FUW says that Aberystwyth is a referral centre for parasitology; research and development work also goes on there. It is an important centre, but, if you centralise it and people cannot relocate, there is the potential for it to be a poorer service. However, that would need to be seen.

Q10 Guto Bebb: We have been told that the agency has been instructed by Defra to reduce its spending by about £8 million per year until 2015. If the laboratories are not cut, where should the agency try to make savings? Do you have any views on that?

Dr Wright: It depends on whether you think there should be savings on issues such as food health and safety. It is an important question. Potentially, savings could be achieved by reducing some testing at all labs as opposed to reducing the labs in Aberystwyth by 100%. That would be a big difference, because you would still retain services in Wales and stop it being vulnerable later to the closures of centres. There are ways and means of reducing expenditure without taking it all away from Wales. That is an important consideration.

Mr Morgan: As a farmer, I feel that we have two centres of excellence in Wales-one in Carmarthen and one in Aberystwyth. I return to a point made by Steve about cattle. In Aberystwyth and Carmarthen, the capacity to take live sheep, slaughter them on site and do the investigation is available. I know that service could still be available, but those samples will then have to be sent away to England. I have heard that in cases of abortion, which is serious in sheep flocks, you can take a live animal to get it tested and have it back within 24 hours. You can then do your remedial work to stop the disease. The feeling is that we have two centres of excellence in Wales, and we need to keep them. Once you start making cuts, where will they stop? That is the question.

Mr James: You talk about cost savings, but you must be well aware that foot and mouth cost in excess of £8 billion in 2001. Quick diagnosis of something like that may make a big difference because you limit the spread in the first place, and that limits the overall cost.

Disease is a peculiar thing. You can never decide today what disease levels will be over the next 10 years because you do not know. We are concerned about new and emerging diseases as well because of border controls. I have been to Australia and other countries where you have to stand in a line. If they know that you have come from a farm, you are almost carrying a banner saying, "Watch this fellow", whereas when you come back into Heathrow, no one gives a damn. That concerns us quite a bit. There are diseases that we may not even have heard of in this country at the moment, and there is a risk of that. I know this is a different debate, but those emerging diseases concern us, which is why the facility must be retained in some shape or form. That is what we are saying and that is what we believe.

Q11 Geraint Davies: Following on from that point, I am concerned about the speed of transmission of significant diseases, particularly those such as foot and mouth, and the cost of £8 billion versus the cost savings. My first question is about the topography of Wales. We all know that it takes a long time to get to Aberystwyth or Carmarthen, but how much extra time will it take for the results to come back to the farm if the tests are taken out of Wales?

Mr James: I would say that they would struggle to do it within 24 hours. I shall give an example. At the moment, the gamma interferon blood tests for TB are done at Weybridge. There is no facility in Wales for doing that test. They have to get the blood samples there within 24 hours for the test to be effective. It does not work if the sample is older than 24 hours, and there are many failures. Only 50,000 gamma interferon tests are done a year because it is such a challenge. There is no doubt that one of the limitations is the fact that they can carry out that test in only one central lab. That highlights the issue. You can imagine taking blood samples on a farm, especially if you have a 500-cow herd or a flock of 1,000 sheep. It takes a long time to accumulate the samples in the first place, and you then have to transport them to a central lab. So 24 hours from taking the first sample is a major challenge.

Q12 Geraint Davies: You said earlier that, if you have to take the sample a long distance and it is no longer fresh, the test result may be unreliable.

Mr James: That is right, yes.

Q13 Geraint Davies: With an outbreak of foot and mouth, there is a risk that, because of the distance and the time involved, the test would be unreliable, that we would have to wait for another test to come back, and that, too, could be unreliable, and then you would have to do it again. The movement of cattle and sheep around England and Wales was one of the primary reasons for the breadth of the outbreak of foot and mouth. The time delays that we are talking about could presumably enable the disease to spread hundreds of miles, could they not?

Mr James: Yes.

Q14 Geraint Davies: The prospective cost of this saving could be hundreds of millions of pounds, if not billions.

Mr James: It could be lost elsewhere.

Q15 Geraint Davies: Is that correct?

Mr James: That is a possibility.

Q16 Geraint Davies: The other thing that interests me is the importance of having these research hubs in Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. In terms of inward investment and being at the cutting edge of agribusiness and so on, how important are they for Wales?

Dr Wright: They are essential. Agriculture benefits tremendously individually and on a pan-Wales level from research and development. For instance, Aberystwyth developed a staining technique, a differential stain analysis, to tell the difference between parasites of the same family. Before that technique was developed, it took a lot longer to tell what species you had. Things such as drug resistance are really important in determining what species you have, as some species of a parasite will respond to a drug and others in the same family will not, simply because of their resistance. Even that sort of research and development affects how farmers treat their stock and how the stock respond to whatever anthelmintic or antiparasitic drugs are given.

Q17 Geraint Davies: I presume that the research done at Aberystwyth has international application.

Dr Wright: Yes.

Q18 Geraint Davies: We visited Brussels to talk about the availability, for example, of research and innovation grants for Wales which required a cross-border partnership and this sort of thing. In ripping out this research and development opportunity for Wales, is there not a danger that we could be undermining investment flows from Europe and failing to seize the opportunity of leadership in the global field?

Dr Wright: Absolutely.

Q19 Geraint Davies: It is a research problem as well, given the prospective cost of outbreaks. Perhaps it is a very costly risk but it also has a costly impact on our capabilities in Wales.

Dr Wright: Absolutely. A proven track record on research and development is essential. The work done in Aberystwyth was published in peer review journals and the technique is now used elsewhere, so such work is incredibly important. That experience takes a long time to develop, and people have affinities for different lab techniques; so it is not always the case that you can transfer a lab technique from someone who is excellent to someone in a different lab. It does not work like that. The affinity that labs such as Aberystwyth have is essential for funding streams.

Q20 Geraint Davies: The gross value added in Wales per job is about 74% of the UK average. I know that it is not necessarily to do with the subject, but it is another example of added-value jobs in research being stripped out of Wales, and making Wales relatively less prosperous again.

Dr Wright: Yes.

Chair: We might be diverging a little from the subject of labs.

Geraint Davies: None the less, it is very important. It is the rape of the fair country.

Q21 Stuart Andrew: The FUW submission refers to the use of private laboratories for testing. How common is that currently?

Dr Wright: It depends on the technique. Private labs do quite a lot of the high-throughput, low-staff-to-sample ratio tests; they will do things such as screening for BVD and Johne’s bulk milk testing. When it comes to the more specialised and unusual techniques, techniques that are expensive or that require particularly experienced staff or a high-staff-to-sample ratio, private labs tend not to do them. I do not have any data, but I assume that that is because they cannot make it pay very well. If you increase reliance upon those private labs, there is a danger that you will lose the unusual and experienced cases that are done by AHVLA.

Q22 Stuart Andrew: Do you have any specific evidence that there would be an increase in the use of private labs?

Dr Wright: No. Basically, that was based on the fact that there could be an overall loss of capacity. It is just an assumption, but if you lose personnel there is obviously the potential for that to happen.

Q23 Stuart Andrew: Is there any evidence that these private labs are less reliable and less efficient?

Dr Wright: I do not have any data on that. I assume that everything is quality controlled in order to be assessed and to be able to give the result back. I know that AHVLA labs are constantly subject to that sort of control, but I do not know whether private labs are the same. AHVLA labs are given, as a routine, samples to test-it is double-blind or blind testing-to ensure that their quality controls are up to scratch.

Stuart Andrew: I think that we have touched on the loss of expertise. Thank you.

Q24 Chair: We are sometimes so enthusiastic that we ask questions that we were going to ask later even earlier than expected. May I go back to an earlier point? I have no reason to think that it is incorrect, but you seem to be saying that you do not want this change to happen because you are not confident that a centralised laboratory system would offer as good a service as the one that you get at the moment, but, if it was as good as the Dutch system, it would be better than the present system. Is that more or less a summary of what you are saying?

Mr James: I mentioned the Dutch system. We want a guaranteed service. As Hazel has said, animal health is vital to the economy of Welsh farming going forward. The sooner we know what a disease is, the sooner we can cure it, using the correct treatment. If you take services away from these two labs, you will have to replace them with something at least as good, if not better. That is what we are saying. For reasons of topography and other factors, we are not confident that that can be delivered. As Hazel has mentioned, once you have taken away one aspect of that testing, it may be easier to close the labs completely. We would then have no post-mortem facilities. We fear that as well, because the cost savings from the labs may be a lot less than the cost savings as a whole.

Q25 Chair: I completely understand that. I shall put it differently. If you received the reassurance that the system that was going to replace the current one would offer a better service, would that ease your concerns? In other words, you are concerned not about the fact that it is in Wales but that you should have a quick turn-around of samples. Is that right?

Dr Wright: I would probably still be concerned about vulnerability to closure. The issues on closure are very different from those on moving testing. The problem with closure is that for farmers there will be nowhere easily to take animals to be post-mortemed, which impacts on overall disease and scanning surveillance. It will impact on whether a farmer gets a local service.

Q26 Chair: Let me cut in. Forgive my ignorance, but, when you talk about post-mortems, I presume that the scientist has to go to the farm.

Mr Morgan: No.

Q27 Chair: Does the farmer give the sample to a carrier?

Mr Morgan: I use the Aberystwyth lab because I live about 30 miles away. If I have a problem, the first port of call is my vet. The vet will say, "Get a sample to Aberystwyth as quickly as possible." You sometimes take a live sheep, sometimes a foetus, and sometimes it is a cleansing, whatever the disease is of cattle or sheep. We had a problem many years ago with scouring in some calves, and we took a calf up there. I guess that in the good old days they used to take even full-grown cattle up there.

Mr James: They still do.

Mr Morgan: They still do so in Carmarthen, do they? I don’t think they do it in my area. We have a quick turn-around. I can get there in my car and it is fairly accessible. It is fairly central for Wales. It is a lot nearer than Weybridge. Once you get the sample to them, they can do the testing immediately if you have a problem. You can ring your vet, your vet is back on the phone, the diagnostic is there, and you can do something. It is usually done within 24 hours.

Q28 Chair: Do they have to be frozen?

Mr Morgan: No; they like them fresh, although I think that they can do frozen samples.

Q29 Chair: You mentioned the gamma interferon testing that is done in Bristol, I think.

Mr James: Yes. It has always been there.

Q30 Chair: Are those samples frozen?

Mr James: No, they would be fresh samples.

Q31 Chair: Would freezing lengthen the potential window for testing?

Mr James: Perhaps Hazel knows.

Dr Wright: My understanding is that you cannot freeze it.

Q32 Geraint Davies: Can we be clear on this? The Chair may have the wrong end of the stick. He seems to be saying that, if you could have the same system in Wales as in Holland, it would be all right; but you are saying that Wales is not Holland, Holland is flat, and you cannot have the same the speed of movement in Wales as you have in Holland. It is very difficult to get around Wales, and closing down these systems will cause massive risk both to Wales and England. It does not matter how you dress these cuts up. There will be risk and they will undermine Wales.

Chair: Hills are not an insoluble transport problem, but there we are.

Geraint Davies: We could build a lot of new motorways across Wales, but we are not intending to.

Mr Morgan: The crux of the argument, and you have heard it from Steve and Hazel, is that we have two centres in Wales that we as farmers deem to be doing excellent work. The loss of anything of that sort would be detrimental to farming in Wales. Okay, we can send it over the border, but we would need a guarantee. I would want a cast-iron guarantee, written in blood, that it would be an even better service than we get now before I could go back to my members and tell them what is on offer. At the moment, we have an excellent system that we can use.

Dr Wright: I would want a guarantee that it was not going to be the first in a series of closures. The problem I have is that, when you reduce testing or take it away from a lab, it will become more vulnerable to closure because it will be performing a reduced service compared to other labs in England. That is a real problem, because you have already taken away a service from Wales, and to take away post-mortems will have a completely different impact. I know that it is slightly indirect because we are talking about testing movement, but that is a concern. I, too, would want a cast-iron guarantee that it means nothing in terms of the future of those labs, and I do not think such a guarantee would be forthcoming. So that would be my concern.

Mr James: One other thing that muddies the water is that animal health is a devolved issue. It is controlled by the Welsh Assembly. That would dirty the water a little, particularly if they wanted to introduce gamma interferon testing. Because of the intensity of stock in west Wales and the problems with TB, particularly if and when there was a badger cull, by using gamma interferon, they could speed up control of the disease. Having a testing facility in Wales would allow them to use that option. If you remove the service, you remove that option. I know it is speculating.

Chair: I was hoping that no one would mention the badger word, because I can see this going off at a tangent.

Q33 Jessica Morden: What is the Welsh Government’s view on these changes?

Mr James: To be honest, we have talked to the vets and the labs, but we have not talked to the Welsh Government.

Q34 Jessica Morden: In your written evidence, you make big play of the good local relationships between vets, labs and farmers. What will be the impact, and will it affect the sense of trust if the changes go ahead?

Dr Wright: In our evidence, we mentioned a two-tier system. I am aware that it is very specific and under specific circumstances, but you can have an animal taken and something like a faecal egg-count or a culture done very quickly. A lot of common diseases are bacterial or parasitological. So keeping those tests in Wales will stop the need for further testing elsewhere, because you can rule out certain sets of diseases. You have this very quick system that allows you to test for things that are common, and you can get those results back quite quickly. Part of it is also to do with local history. The vet will know what was on the farm prior to that and can pass the information on. If things are centralised or done elsewhere, that transfer of information might get lost.

Q35 Jessica Morden: So local knowledge is important.

Dr Wright: I would think that would be important, yes.

Q36 Jessica Morden: Finally, I have a question for Mr James. The National Farmers’ Union said in October that there had been an increase in the TB incidence rates. As a result of these changes, do you think that Wales and the UK will be less prepared and less effective in dealing with future outbreaks of TB or foot and mouth?

Mr James: As I said, if you wanted to introduce the gamma interferon test, which is a blood test and is basically the test that they use, it is a lab-related TB test. At the moment, we have a skin test on the farm; we do not use the labs for TB testing per se. They do about 2 million or 3 million tests a year UK-wide, but the gamma interferon tests, of which they do only 50,000, is a more sensitive test. I would not entertain it if there was a problem with wildlife, I’ll be honest with you. I know that this is a different subject, but I live in a TB hotspot and I would not entertain using gamma interferon there. But, as part of a package, I would be glad to speed up the removal of TB from my farm. I would entertain the gamma interferon test, although it is quite challenging at the moment because they physically cannot cope with many more than 50,000. If you have increased testing of gamma interferon as part of a package to get rid of TB, having fewer laboratories would make it a bigger challenge going forward.

Q37 Chair: Would you like to see the Assembly or the Government looking to increase the number of places where gamma interferon tests could take place?

Mr James: That is the million dollar question. It has to be part of a package for wildlife control, but it is a very sensitive test and it takes more cattle; we know that. If these animals are constantly being re-infected, once you have done everything else, gamma interferon can be used to clear it up and get rid of the disease completely. Gamma interferon is used in a clean area. If there is an outbreak of TB in a clean area, they will come along with a gamma interferon test and take a substantial number of cattle off that farm-cows that have been exposed to the disease-to test them and remove them just to stop TB getting into the wildlife in the area. It is part of the policy in England and Wales at the moment. Gamma interferon is a good tool in clean areas. It is a cleaning-up tool, and it would be useful to have more of it at that point.

Chair: Does anyone have further questions? It seems not. In that case, I declare the session over. Thank you very much for coming along today.

Mr James: Thank you for listening.

Prepared 2nd February 2012